The Music of Gospel Songs
Distinct characteristics not only surrounded the text of these Gospel Songs, but its music had a certain meaning as well. Critics in England noticed the similarity of these tunes with “music hall songs.”1 The Nation said that “while written to religious words, [the songs] are made attractive by many secular contrivances. . . . Determine the pleasure you get from a circus quickstep, a negro minstrel sentimental ballad, a college chorus, and a hymn all in one and you have some gauge of the variety and contrast.”2 Many thought the song “Hold the Fort,” for instance, was similar to a college cheer.
Benson observed that “the Gospel Hymn was merely a modern instance of that lighter popular song that has always hovered at the borders of church worship: a rival or supplement of . . . ‘the standard hymn.’”3 Benson links the Gospel Song to the spiritual, particularly in regards to its emotional power.
Whatever was communicated by the music, it had a significant impact on the masses who were finding themselves having to deal with industrialization and secularization. Routley noticed that the Moody and Sankey “always brought religion to people who were untouched by the established forms of churchmanship; that they brought faith to a generation for which the church at large had found itself totally unprepared.” Somehow this music was appealing to them, and the Gospel Song became very popular.4
1McLoughlin, Revivalism, 234. Also see Erik Routley, Hymns and Human Life, 2d ed. (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1959).
2The Nation, XXII (March 9, 1876), 156; quoted in McLoughlin, Revivalism, 234.
3Benson, Hymnody, 265.