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'Almost a religion of its own': Gospel music provides comfort, community

Ayanna Pic #2.jpg

Photo courtesy of Ayanna Albertson-Gay.

Gospel music has been in spoken word artist Ayanna Albertson-Gay’s life since she was born. She listens to it every day, even while working out. 

As a child, she heard gospel worship music at her great-grandmother’s church in eastern North Carolina, which, to her, was an embodiment of the genre. 

“They were foot-stomping and hand-clapping and that old, really soul, really nostalgic type of gospel,” Albertson-Gay said

Gospel is a form of Black sacred music that emerged in the early decades of the 20th century and was highly influenced by sanctified churches, where singing was more enthusiastic and spirit-driven, Glenn Hinson, a professor of folklore and anthropology at UNC, said. 

By the 1920s and 30s, three music styles began to form the gospel genre in North Carolina, he said. They included sanctified singing, which brought instruments into the church like the banjo and emphasized upbeat songs; harmony singing, a more controlled style that invited listeners to hear the message of the Holy Spirit; and jubilee singing, in which a singer led a congregation in a chorus and told stories in a fast-paced, rhyming manner.

Some of the country’s most successful gospel artists are from North Carolina, including Durham native Shirley Caesar, an 11-time Grammy winner, and a cappella trio the Badgett Sisters, who became known for their performances at the Festival for the Eno in Durham.

Contemporary bluegrass band Carley Arrowood incorporates gospel songs in their discography. The band, based in Newton, N.C., is named after its leader, Carley Arrowood, who said God is at the core of each of their songs. 

“It’s singing your anthem, it’s singing your heart out because you’re just so thankful to the Lord for what he’s doing,” she said

The band's original songs are often inspired by scripture, like Psalms or the Gospels in the Bible, and Arrowood's love for God.

The band will release an album on March 29, “Colors,” that will feature two gospel songs — a cover of evangelistic musical collective Gateway Worship’sO the Blood” and an original song, “Colors,” written by Arrowood and her husband — along with other bluegrass tunes. 

Albertson-Gay’s work also includes spiritual references and is tied to the Black experience. Many of the pieces on her spoken-word poetry album “Eleven O’seven,” named after her birthday, explore spiritual wellness.

“[Gospel] just kind of naturally flows into my art, and it’s interwoven into my performance,” she said

From the late 1940s and early '50s onward, much of gospel music was spirited and joyful, Hinson said. Gospel groups encouraged members of the church congregation to dance when they presented their music.

Musician Le’Andra McPhatter said churches helped gospel music gain prominence in eastern North Carolina, where she is originally from. 

“I think good music and soulful music was a pillar and a tradition, almost a religion of its own, inside the gospel music scene, if you will,” she said. “So it has predominantly been placed on churches.”

McPhatter has experience composing and arranging music for gospel artists. One of her most memorable projects was with singer Jessica Mills, known as Joyful Jess, on Mills' 2019 EP “Sincerity."  

McPhatter said gospel music has an interesting evolution and that each era of the genre pulled influences from a variety of other spaces and cultures, maintaining relevancy in the process.

One of the most prominent changes she has noticed in gospel music is that technology has allowed song arrangements to become more elaborate.

She also said the demographics of singers and musicians that carry the gospel tradition are getting older, and the genre will shift as it goes into new hands — but it’s not going anywhere. 

“There is a need to have an abundance of things that remind you of love,” Albertson-Gay said. “And I think that’s how people associate gospel music — they associate gospel music from love.”

@dthlifestyle |

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