Black Music at White Churches

A correspondent asked me about this dilemma:

I’d like to know your opinion about this latest thing that always seems to come up. Tomorrow we’re doing a nice Gospel piece. One of the high school students who sings with the adult choir can do these fantastic improvisations. Since we’re almost at the end of the year I wanted to get her in one more time before she’s finnished and goes off to college. So while the choir and congregation enjoy this stuff immensely, there’s one or two older ladies and a young guy in his 20’s who just find it positively repulsive. They say this music is irreverent and disrespectful to the Mass. I ask why and they say it’s “raucous” and doesn’t belong in the liturgy. I ask, what about in black churches where they do this stuff, or African villages where they have quite rhythmic music? They respond that’s fine, “they” have their music and “we” have ours.

This situation touches on a few points we might do well to remember. One is the question of being able to present such music with quality. A young singer who can pull off “fantastic improvisations” certainly qualifies as skillful. And I’m assuming the choir can add harmony in a stylistically authentic way. If a choir can do gospel music well, that’s the first hurdle.

Next comes the question of liturgical appropriateness. For a choir-only piece (I’m making that assumption here) one would look at the text, and if it was suitable for the Mass, the liturgical season, and for the moment of the Mass, we’re on solid ground. The complaint, after all, isn’t about the musical judgment or the liturgical judgment, but the pastoral one.

I’m generally skeptical about the notion of building a sacred music repertoire by subtraction. In other words, we start with a body of music, then we cut loose everything anybody dislikes. A pretty small hymnal results.

Three people in a large parish object to Gospel music. I feel badly for these people to a degree. But if one choral anthem with a teen soloist is the only speedbump in their Sunday spiritual experience, my inclination is to gently suggest they suck it up and take one for the team.

Unlike hip-hop or rock, Gospel music is an authentic style of sacred music. Like plainsong, it probably had some roots in secular music or incorporated non-sacred aspects as it developed. Like plainsong, it is identifiably a genre of sacred music, even if it lacks the centuries of pedigree of Gregorian chant.

The Church accepts the use of different languages within one liturgy. Liturgical Music Today suggests that along these lines, different musical idioms may be fruitfully used within a single celebration (14).

We can make this an armchair liturgist kind of thing, so if anyone else would care to jump in, feel free.


About catholicsensibility

Todd lives in the Pacific Northwest, serving a Catholic parish as a lay minister.
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18 Responses to Black Music at White Churches

  1. chironomo says:

    I don’t know what the selection is, and whether it is an actual Gospel selection, or one of the numerous Gospel-like works of either Bob Hurd, David Haas or others which border on parody. While I agree that the text must be appropriate to consider the work at all, I think there is reason for the “old ladies” to be skeptical about the appropriateness of such music at Mass. The fact that you say you are programming this piece at Mass so that your graduating singer can have a “solo moment” would set off some alarms in my house, as this is obviously putting the needs of the music before the needs of the liturgy. There is a difference, at least in my mind, between a solo being called for in a selection that is wholly appropriate at Mass, and trying to justify a piece as being wholly appropriate at Mass because a solo is called for. I personally would be concerned that such a selection would too easily become a performance.

  2. Tony says:

    One of the high school students who sings with the adult choir can do these fantastic improvisations.

    In my opinion (with lack of knowledge of the hearts of the “performers”), this appears to turn the authentic worship genre into “performance art”. Both those who “enjoy it” and those who are “repulsed” seem to be intuitively feeling the performance aspect of it. Performance for the sake of performance has no place at Mass. That includes both the swelling performances of a concert level organist and the bad lounge acts with guitars and bongos.

  3. Gavin says:

    Is Gospel music appropriate for Mass? I don’t know. I’m not risking it at my church, although I have secretly enjoyed the bit of “gospel” music I’ve heard. I refer, of course, to the stuff written by conservatory profs and white people, but it’s still a fun genre. At white churches I’d definitely shy away from Gospel. It’s just too much of a stretch and it reeks too much of what I described in my old blog as “phony multiculturalism”. The 3 people who complain to you doubtlessly aren’t the only ones affected by it. I wouldn’t risk music that alienates the listener. Now, before someone says “chant does that too!”, I’ll agree and point out that congregations in particular have to move beyond what’s “comfortable”. However, chant better serves the rite. Get your white congregation used to chant before introducing them to Gospel, chant should be a higher priority in the Roman Rite.

    On a musical basis, and here I have stronger opinions, I really don’t like white churches/people singing Gospel. That may be borderline racist, but I’m sticking with it. For some reason, and I don’t know why, white choirs regularly give unconvincing renditions of Gospel music (and usually spirituals too, although a well-rounded choir can perform those well). And that’s not just my position. I’ve met a few real Gospel musicians, black people at that, who constantly relay to me their disgust with white choirs singing Gospel. And then the white singers who approach the music for solos are just terrible Kelly-Clarkston-Wannabes who take any of the sacred out of the music completely.

    For a 3rd point, I vehemently disagree with Tony regarding improvisation. Particularly as someone who uses it to quite an extent at Mass. There’s no opposition whatsoever between improvisation and sacred music. The very beginnings of sacred choral music were improvised parts. The practice of improvising in Mass, I’d argue, is nearly as old as Mass itself. Whether it’s 11th century organum, Widor improvising on the communio at St. Sulpice, a Gospel singer letting out a jubilus, or me playing a few measure of “O Sanctissima” to cover the offertory, improvisation adds greatly to Mass.

  4. Jimmy Mac says:

    Well, silly me: I thought these were CATHOLIC churches, not “white” and “black” churches. I guess the Universality of Catholicism is limited by the color barrier, i.e., it’s white europeanness.

    And don’t tell me that Bach, Brahms, Mozart, etc. renderings during Mass are not Performane Art!

  5. David says:

    Jimmy, Yes I agree on both your points. When I was hired here the pastor really wanted to know if I could do the full breadth of church music. He was very concerned about embracing the universality aspect of the church. He wanted the musician to be able to do chant, polyphony, baroque…and be comfortable with at least some contemporary styles.

    About some of the other concerns of other writers: Although most of the time the liturgical appropriateness question comes ahead of performance related questions in my mind, I do admit, this time I let the performance get the upper hand. That is always a balancing act with me though, I always take into consideration what performance options I might have available. If I have a choice between one piece that is absolutely perfect liturgically but musically it’s a little bland, and another choice that fits but isn’t as perfect in every way liturgically, but I’ve got really good performers that week and I know all the “good” singers from the choir are in town and will all be there, I’ll usually opt for the one that well be a better performance. If I know a certain piece would be perfect for a particular Sunday but I don’t have all the resources to do a great job of it musically, I won’t do it, I’ll usually go for something else that I’ll be able to pull off relatively well with less resources.

    I agree that “Bach, Brahms, and Mozart” are performance art. That is one of the criticisms that has come up recently, that these are not liturgically suitable for the Mass. My question was why do I never hear a peep when we do those, only when we do ethnic music. The same thing happened when we did a “Spanish” Mass for the school this year and we had percussion instruments and a Spanish musician who could really get the feel of this stuff. I thought it was great, the kids were singing with great gusto, I mean you just couldn’t help be uplifted and smile. I heard one lady after Mass saying,”Well, I’m sure God was plugging his ears through that.” Wow, I never saw that one coming. I guess that’s another part of this whole thing that I’m having a problem with. Everyone seems to be an expert on what makes God happy.

  6. Liam says:

    Well, I have had white musical colleagues who have offered Gospel music within the idiomatic style without affectation. It’s not utterly alien to all white Americans (which is not to say it’s utterly innate to all white Americans), though a MD should proceed with caution to prevent an affected or patronizing distortion of the idiom. I too have heard a number of black people deriding the latter types of offerings and express a general skepticism about the ability of white Catholics to do it justice.

    I loved Gavin’s aside about a Gospel jubilus – that captures what’s “right” about this idiom in Catholic liturgy (at least in the US).

    And I would also say that Bach, Brahms, Mozart offerings during Mass are not necessarily performance art at all. What a silly notion.

  7. Katherine says:

    This is a bit tangential, but since David mentioned Spanish music, I’ll presume upon your collective charity … Watching the Pope’s mass at Aparecida on Sunday, I was struck by the lovely music at the offertory. A priest commentator (from Texas) called it “Nicaraguan offertory” and said it was very widely used in Hispanic liturgies. Anyone know what the piece is, where to find it? Google turned up nothing.

    As for the use of Gospel music, I can appreciate it artistically, but I can’t sing it comfortably; apart from the problem of doing it justice, it feels forced. Oddly enough, I suspect I would not feel that way about singing Asian or African ritual music (like the old Missa Luba).

  8. David says:

    “Oddly enough, I suspect I would not feel that way about singing Asian or African ritual music (like the old Missa Luba).”

    I think I may have inadvertantly got the topic side tracked to being about doing Gospel music authentically. That’s not at all what I meant to ask about. Even something like the Missa Luba would be in the exact same class of music that these people are claiming to be forbidden at Mass. Even a totally benign African piece gets criticized when we do it, not because it isn’t performed authentically but because it is rhythmic in nature(I guess, I don’t really know the exact rational behind these comments). I actually just read the two documents from the 50’s(I forget their names, something like music sacra) and they talk about raucous music being forbidden. I think this must be where this idea is coming from because I’ve heard that exact word used to describe why African, Sapnish, and African American music is inappropriate for Mass. Even something like a tambourine accomanying a Medieval chant done in a metrical style seems to be a big no no for these people.

    I don’t know, if you read those documents and compare it to the music you hear in churches today they seem completely contradictory. So to give these people the bennfit of the doubt, where in later documents does it say these earlier documents don’t apply anymore? For example, in these earlier documents they talk about allowing, besides the organ, only small bowed string instruments, no piano, no percussion, and no “bands”. When you read the later US Bishops documents you get a whole different sense of what’s appropriate and allowed. Pardon my ignorance here, I never did study liturgy and am totally self taught in the area of liturgical music, but why is it ok to follow the Bishops document(s) over the Roman ones? These are probably basic principles of canon law that most people know but I know nothing about so please bear with me.

  9. Liam says:


    Todd’s ongoing current series of posts on Musicam Sacram (1967) addresses, for example, the reformulation of legistation regarding permitted instruments.

  10. Todd says:

    MS does address instruments. MCW, offering a particular set of guidelines for the US dioceses, also weighs in. A local bishop, for example, might determine that more strictness is needed than MCW, and he might add other judgments: no drums, no this-or-that. But to my knowledge, outside of liturgical dance, and unofficial desires expressed for when he comes to visit, no bishop has offered any significant legislation on particular instruments.

  11. Brigid says:

    I just want to know where to find this *wonderful* gospel-singing choir photo. Credit, Todd?

  12. David says:

    Yes, I found the whole Musicam Sacram discussion on this site very hlepful. Thank you all very much.

  13. David says:

    Since I’ve been reading every document and article I can find on this subject I came across this very scholarly work.

    Does this mean that a person can pretty much make the documents go whichever way you want depending on your own personal idea of how things should be?

  14. Todd says:

    Pretty much.

    I went to the footnotes first. Notice that Mr Hoffman has no citation from the GIRM, or the rubrics of the Mass. He doesn’t have much from Musicam Sacram, which opened up the possibilities for instruments and genre.

    I don’t think a serious scholar can cherrypick sources on liturgy and avoid addressing contrary arguments to his or her own.

  15. Pingback: Forming the Congregation in Good Music « Catholic Sensibility

  16. Gavin says:

    I glanced at that pice that David posted.

    What’s the deal (point 1) with people who think polyphony is close to Gregorian chant? If you ask me, it’s as far away as nearly any sacred music can be. Or is that just a common Folk Catholicism idiocy like St. Cecilia inventing the organ or the Holy Spirit in the form of a dove dictating the entire Graduale to St. Gregory?

  17. Katie says:

    How can you say that gospel music is black music? Its not and there is not reason to say it is. It is music ok.

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