Chicago Gospel Music Festival

Chicago Gospel Music Festival

Date Observed: First weekend in June
Location: Chicago, Illinois

The Chicago Gospel Music Festival, sponsored by the Mayor's Office of Special Events since 1984, is held each year on the first weekend in June. The festival celebrates the history of gospel music in Chicago.

Historical Background

Gospel music has a long history in Chicago's African-American community, but elements of the genre come from slave songs, spirituals, folk songs, hymns, and blues. Its roots go back even further to Africa and rhythms and chants that captured people brought to the Americas.

During the 1700s many enslaved people on plantations became Christianized and went to church services, staying afterward to sing and dance in "praise houses." Slaves also sang to bolster their spirits during back-breaking work in the fields, while logging, and on prisoner chain-gang construction sites. Some songs were related to runaway slaves and the Underground Railroad, such as the spirituals "Wade in the Water" (referring to walking in streams to avoid detection by dogs) and "Swing Low, Sweet Chariot" (escaping by wagon).

Protestant hymns also played a role in the development of gospel music, particularly when Richard Allen, founder of the African Methodist Episcopal Church, published collections of hymns that he considered suitable for African-American churches (see also Founder's Day/Richard Allen's Birthday). But the hymns were undemonstrative, and a lighter, less restrained style of singing began to take hold in the 1800s. By the end of the century, Pentecostal churches were influencing gospel music with clapping, foot stomping, and shouting, as was common in praise houses. In addition, African-American composers were contributing to gospel music by arranging spirituals in new ways and publishing their work. Not until the 1920s did gospel music become an accepted term for this genre of music. In 1921 the National Baptist Convention, USA met in Chicago and officially acknowledged the sacred spirit of gospel music. At the time, Thomas A. Dorsey, a honky-tonk piano player and composer who accompanied blues singers, such as Ma Rainey, attended the convention and liked the music he heard. But he wanted to change the rhythms "to get the feeling and the moans and the blues into the songs," according to the Chicago Tribune. Dorsey said he "modified some of the stuff from way back in the jazz era, bashed it up and smoothed it in. It had that beat, that rhythm. And people were wild about it."

However, when Dorsey attempted to introduce the music to black church congregations on Chicago's South Side, elders did not welcome his style. Although discouraged, Dorsey began to compose his own songs, which totaled more than 1,000 during his lifetime; about half were published. In 1926 he coined the term "gospel music," publishing his first two gospel songs "Someday, Somewhere" and "If You See My Savior."

Dorsey eventually found a home for his compositions in the Pilgrim Baptist Church, considered the birthplace of gospel music. As choir director at Pilgrim Baptist, Dorsey trained gospel singers, including the great Mahalia Jackson and many others who gained fame. (Tragically, on January 6, 2006, the historic church was severely damaged in a fire that destroyed priceless artifacts, including some of Dorsey's original compositions.)

Sallie Martin (1896-1988) was instrumental in spreading gospel music through the Midwest and the South. As a young hospital worker with an interest in the genre, Martin joined Dorsey's choir in 1932 and gradually earned a reputation as a charismatic artist. Also in 1932, she co-founded, with Dorsey, the National Convention of Gospel Choirs and Choruses. In 1940 Martin started a gospel publishing company in Chicago with songwriter Kenneth Morris. Martin and Morris, Inc., grew to be the most prominent publisher of gospel music in the nation. Until the 1950s, she and her Sallie Martin Singers toured and performed in Europe as well as in the United States. For these contributions Martin is known as the Mother of Gospel Music.

Creation of the Festival

The first Chicago Gospel Music Festival was held in 1984 in Grant Park on the shores of Lake Michigan. It has been organized by the Chicago Mayor's Office of Special Events (MOSE) since its inception.


During the June weekend of the annual Chicago Gospel Music Festival, performers include local, national, and international gospel artists. There is also a gospel art fair. Each year the MOSE selects festival performers based on applications. Applicants submit biographical sketches, tapes, CDs, photographs, and other materials for consideration. Appearing at the festival have been such gospel music favorites as Bryon Cage, the Williams Brothers, and Solomon Burke, called the "King of Rock and Soul." A Grammy winner, Burke is known for creating soul music by applying gospel techniques to rhythm and blues. Other past performers include the Mississippi Mass Choir, the Canton Spirituals, Mary Mary, Yolanda Adams, Daryl Coley, Men of Standard, John P. Kee & New Life Community Choir, Fred Hammond & Radical For Christ, Bobby Jones & New Life, Sounds of Blackness, Richard Smallwood & Vision, Take 6, Dottie Peoples & The Peoples Chorale, Dorothy Norwood, Shirley Caesar, Albertina Walker, The Winans, Smokie Norful, Smokey Robinson, D. J. Rogers, Israel & New Breed, and Tye Tribbett & GA.

In 2005 the 21st annual gospel event was staged at the new lakefront Millennium Park with performances on its main stage at the Jay Pritzker Pavilion and its North and South Promenades. The festival draws tens of thousands of gospel lovers.

Thomas A. Dorsey (1899-1993)

Known as the "Father of Gospel Music," Thomas Andrew Dorsey was born in 1899 in Villa Rica, Georgia. His father was a minister, and Thomas heard spirituals and Baptist hymns at church and at home. As a child his life was also filled with secular music - the blues were then emerging. Although the Dorsey family had a limited income, they managed to buy an organ, which Thomas learned to play at about six years old. He also received some musical education from an uncle.

When the Dorsey family moved to Atlanta in 1908, Thomas frequented a vaudeville theater, where he watched pianists at work. He himself became a paid performer, playing blues in clubs and for parties and dances while he was still a teenager.

In 1916 Dorsey went to Chicago looking for better-paying jobs. For the next few years, he traveled between Atlanta and Chicago trying to improve his income. By the mid-1920s, he was touring the country. He also began publishing some of his songs.

Married in 1925, Dorsey's wife died seven years later while giving birth to their only child. Their infant son died the next day. Dorsey became deeply depressed and after some months began to recover by composing the now-famous song "Take My Hand, Precious Lord." From then on, he was devoted to gospel music, which he promoted in Chicago and across the nation. He also continued to compose and publish his work, including "There'll Be Peace in the Valley," "Ev'ry Day Will Be Sunday By and By," and "I'll Be Climbing Up the Rough Side of the Mountain."

Contact and Web Site

Mayor's Office of Special Events 121 N. LaSalle St., Rm. 703 Chicago, IL 60602 312-744-3315; fax: 312-744-8523 Special+Events&entityNameEnumValue=38

Further Reading

Boyer, Horace Clarence. "Gospel Music." In The African-American Experience: Selec- tions from the Five-Volume Macmillan Encyclopedia of African-American Culture and History , edited by Jack Salzman. New York: Macmillan, 1998. Darden, Robert. People Get Ready: A New History of Black Gospel Music. Chicago: Continuum International Publishing Group, 2004. Harris, Michael W. The Rise of Gospel Blues: The Music of Thomas Andrew Dorsey in the Urban Church . New York: Oxford University Press, 1992. Jackson, Jerma A. Singing in My Soul: Black Gospel Music in a Secular Age. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2004. Lornell, Kip. "Dorsey, Thomas Andrew." In African American Lives, edited by Henry Louis Gates Jr. and Evelyn Brooks Higginbotham. New York: Oxford University Press, 2004. Reich, Howard. "Gospel Music Loses Its Storied Birthplace." Chicago Tribune, January 8, 2006.
African-American Holidays, Festivals, and Celebrations, 1st ed. © Omnigraphics, Inc. 2007

Chicago Gospel Music Festival

First weekend in June
Since 1985 the city of Chicago, Ill., has celebrated its heritage as the birthplace of gospel music by hosting a three-day festival showcasing local, national, and international performers. The African-American composer Thomas A. Dorsey of Chicago's Pilgrim Baptist Church published the first gospel music in Chicago in 1926. A transplant from Georgia, Dorsey developed a vibrant, upbeat musical style that combined traditional spirituals and hymns with blues and jazz rhythms. In the following decades the genre spread from its roots in the black church to become a significant influence on American music and culture.
Each year the festival hosts about 275,000 fans, who enjoy 50 free performances on three stages in a lakefront setting at Millennium Park. It is the largest free music festival in the world devoted exclusively to gospel music. In addition to the entertainment offerings, the festival hosts a fine art fair, including works in such media as fiber, glass, painting, photography, and wood.
Chicago Gospel Music Festival
Mayor's Office of Special Events
121 N. LaSalle St., Rm. 703
Chicago, IL 60602
312-744-3315; fax: 312-744-8523
AAH-2007, p. 97
Holidays, Festivals, and Celebrations of the World Dictionary, Fourth Edition. © 2010 by Omnigraphics, Inc.
References in periodicals archive ?
* Annual Chicago Gospel Music Festival. Millennium Park.
Werner, an avowed nonbeliever, and the Jewish friend with whom she attended the 2006 Chicago Gospel Music Festival found themselves having such a good time that the singer-songwriter was left wondering, "Why should God get all the good music?"
34th Chicago Gospel Music Festival: Noon to 9:30 p.m.
* 18th Annual Chicago Gospel Music Festival. Petrillo Music Shell, Grant Park.

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