The “Birth of Gospel” Highlights Chicago’s Rich History in Gospel Music

Photo: A choir performs in Chicago in 1941. Credit: Russell Lee, Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division

As part of the new season of Chicago stories, WTTW explores the birth and growth of gospel music in Chicago. Weaving through African spiritual traditions, slavery, and the Great Migration, “The Birth of Gospel” tells the rich history of the Black Christian spiritual experience through music.


African spiritual traditions such as the “ring shout” incorporated chants, dance, and expressive rhythms that were used by enslaved Africans forced into Christianity by their white slave owners. Enslaved Black people held secret worship services, incorporating hymns they were forced to learn with their African traditions, creating what is now known as spirituals.

“The congregation would listen and sing along- African culture included call and response, improvisation, rhythm, and emotion. Those are very important to keep their culture and spirit together.” -Brian Johnson, Trinity United Church of Christ

Enslaved Black people used these spirituals as a source of strength and encouragement and even as a way of communicating messages and instructions for slaves seeking freedom. “We never took hold of the idea of being docile and listening to the enslaver, we always had a secret language that comes through the music says Pastor Otis Moss, III of Trinity United Church of Christ.

Following emancipation, newly freed slaves form their own churches and in their free time or in the midst of their workday, they would play and create what is known as “Blues Music.”  It was the music of poor sharecroppers in the south. The Blues was birthed out of the weight of racism in the Jim Crow South, inequity, and poor economic and living conditions.


While Black people suffered from the conditions living in the Jim Crow South, other Black populations found better opportunities, wages, and living conditions in the north, and cities such as Chicago. The Chicago Defender newspaper was instrumental in urging southern Black people to head north to cities like Chicago to pursue a better life.

Pullman Porters distributed the Chicago Defender Newspaper to southern Black residents, detailing better housing, education, and economic opportunities in Chicago neighborhoods such as Bronzeville. During the Great Migration, tens of thousands of southern Black people headed to urban communities in search of a better life, including Thomas Dorsey, known as the “Father of Gospel Music.”

A young musician, Dorsey migrated to Chicago from California. He grew up playing jazz and blues, but his roots were in the church. He struggled financially in Chicago and played with legendary singer, Ma Rainey to make ends meet. He longed to play the music he grew up with while growing up in the south. The southern spirituals were animated and spirited and included influences in jazz and blues, all of the music Dorsey learned in his younger years.

At the time, Black churches in Chicago rejected this form of spiritual music but Dorsey was determined to play the music that moved his spirit. Eventually, Dorsey linked up with singers like Sally Martin and Mahalia Jackson to sing the songs he wrote. He would pitch them to churches but was turned down many times. It wasn’t until personal tragedy, touched Dorsey’s life and he wrote, “Precious Lord” that churches began to embrace this new genre of music called gospel.

Writer and producer of “The Birth of Gospel,” Stacey Robinson says gospel music and the story of Thomas Dorsey is an intricate part of the fabric of Chicago’s history. “Chicago Stories shows the diversity of Chicago. The city is a melting pot, and it is important to reflect that. The city is unique in how its neighborhoods retain their own culture. This season of “Chicago Stories” looks at the richness of Chicago neighborhoods through a modern lens,” she says.

Using historic footage, rare recordings, and contemporary performances from the choirs of Trinity United Church of Christ and Greater Harvest Baptist Church, “The Birth of Gospel” connects the origins of gospel music to the evolution of its legacy within the modern Black Christian experience. That connection was by design says, Stacy Robinson. “I couldn’t help but see the irony in that and I wanted to include it and explore it.”  Robinson continued, “modern ministers like Julian Shafer stand on the shoulders of Thomas Dorsey”

Robertson said she wanted to connect audiences with how music and spirituality are deeply intertwined in Black culture. “I hope when audiences see this, they realize that spirituality is at the base of our humanity. The Black church was so important and allowed us ways to get through slavery, Jim Crow, and help sustain us during the Civil Rights Movement and it continues to be a source today.”

WTTW’s “Chicago Stories” air on Fridays at 8 pm and “The Birth of Gospel” airs on May 6 at 8 pm CST.  For more information visit WTTW’s website.

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