The final chapter of this season of Chicago Stories, which premieres Friday, May 6 at 8:00 pm on WTTW, explores the history of gospel music and its origins in Chicago’s Black community and churches. Influential figures such as Thomas A. Dorsey and later Mahalia Jackson began their careers in Chicago’s Black churches, shaping the evolving genre of gospel music along the way, while the genre itself shaped popular music as well.
We spoke with Stacy Robinson, the producer of Chicago Stories: The Birth of Gospel, about gospel music’s ties to Chicago and its unique power.
What draws you to the story of gospel music?
Stacy Robinson: Gospel music was a genre that I was interested in and had a lot of appreciation for. I didn’t know much going into it, which is the way I often like to approach a story. What I learned, which I did not expect, is how much the story of gospel music is actually a more universal story of American music and our country’s history. That was a pleasant surprise.
Can you explain what you mean about gospel being a “universal story of American music?”
Robinson: I think that most people realize the impact that Black music has on American music. Where would American music be without the contributions of Black music? But I don't think that most people realize that all Black music really has roots in gospel music. So in the same way that you can ask, “Where would America be without Black music?” you can ask, “Where would Black music be without gospel?”
What are some of the ways in that music of the Black church has influenced other styles of American music?
Robinson: When we talk about gospel music, we go all the way back to when enslaved Americans arrived here in the United States. Music for them was a way to connect with each other. For people who had come from many different cultures, music was a way to unite and form community in this new world, and it established itself at the church. It was a way for them to communicate and remember where they came from.
That music that they created changed as Black experience changed. When Blacks were emancipated, they were able to add these new creative elements to what started as a Black spiritual, and that’s where we have the first influence of blues. A really distinct change happens with the Great Migration, when African Americans come to Chicago, which is sort of the root of our story. The African American experience in Chicago really impacted African American music everywhere.
What about Chicago causes gospel music to arise here?
Robinson: You could argue that the birth of gospel music didn’t happen here in Chicago, but not one thing can birth such a large genre—it happens collectively. But Chicago is essential. When Southern migrants arrive in Chicago, they often come here through the church or establish their own churches. The first place all Blacks who arrive in Chicago really make are through the churches, because the churches are like social service networks. The churches set them up with friends, family, housing, clothing—and the same thing is happening with Black musicians.
They arrive here with the sensibilities of their Southern blues and music from their church. They arrive in Chicago where there is already an established African American community, and what’s really happening here is jazz. Jazz is really hot on the South Side. And that music becomes part of the stew of church music, and we see that reflected in the music that we think of today as modern gospel, which is really blues, African American spirituals, and the sensibility of jazz.
What happens to gospel music as it nears the present day?
Robinson: Gospel music started as a way for African Americans to find hope and to survive the struggles of their arrival here in America as enslaved people. That travels all the way to the same music that was the soundtrack of the civil rights movement in the 1960s, with Mahalia Jackson and others. Gospel music embodies hope and despair and survival, and it still has that ability to be used today.
How does contemporary gospel music in Chicago both honor its past here and look to the future?
Robinson: We need to honor that past, because it is our past. I think it’s a past that we don’t realize how much we should be honoring it. I don’t think people realize that some of the biggest gospel recording studios were here in Chicago, and it was really a mecca. Chicago makes a great home for a gospel museum. Chicago makes a great home for a blues museum. We’re not doing honor to either of those really unique musical histories in the way that we should. The potential is there; we just need to dedicate a little more attention to it.
Is there anything new you came to appreciate about gospel music in the course of making this documentary?
Robinson: I had an entirely new appreciation for gospel music. I know that rock ‘n’ roll has its roots in gospel music; I did not realize how much gospel music really rocks. I think anybody can appreciate gospel and the way it makes you feel. Gospel is so passionate and so vibrant. You can’t help wanting to stomp your feet and move your hips. You’re going to want to get up and dance. That’s not something that some people would think about in church, because they grew up in a different kind of church, but it’s a really beautiful thing, a natural thing.
This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.