Imagine 50,000 persons gathering for a funeral in the cold winds of a Chicago January morning—and the New York Times not reporting it.

Well, that actually happened in 1969. The funeral was that of famous gospel singer Roberta Martin, and it symbolized the neglect with which mainstream America has treated the genius of black American church music.

Gospel is one of the most important forms of that genre of song—but it is only one. There are also spirituals, jubilees, black hymns, praises, “cross-over” music, and black anthems. All of them are distinct contributions of Afro-American culture to the American scene and to the entire world. But they are generally unnoticed by both the white church and secular musical arenas.

Exceptions exist, of course. The general public was forced to acknowledge the spiritual as perhaps the first uniquely American indigenous musical form, especially when Marian Anderson included them in her repertoire before 75,000 listeners on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial (after she was denied concert access to famed Constitution Hall). More recently, the creative genius of Andrae Crouch has gained currency in white evangelical churches—although most who hear and sing his songs are unaware of the difference between his “cross-over” music and traditional black gospel music. (It is called “cross-over” precisely because it is in vogue among both blacks and whites. Much as disco music crosses the secular racial song-settings, Crouch’s kind of “pop-gospel” accomplishes the same thing.)

If the American mainstream has not recognized the appeal of black religious music (it is hardly ever called “sacred music” in black circles), some evangelists have, though; and they have added black singers to their traveling staffs ...

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