The Origins of Gospel and Bluegrass Music

Black slaves and plantation owners also gave the South what became Gospel with its ring shouts, congregational songs, quartets, sanctified groups, sacred harp choirs, and even work songs.

White Gospel really got its beginning in pre-Civil War camp meetings, revival music, and sacred harp singing. When the Ruebush-Kieffer Publishing Company was established, James Vaughn started the first record company based in the South.

After WW II, the Grand ‘Ole Opry started to feature gospel groups such as The Statesman Quartet, The Oakridge Quartet, The Jordanaires (who later became Elvis Presley’s background singers), The Blackwood Brothers, and The Happy Goodman Family. Modern White Gospel performers include Amy Grant, the late George Beverley Shea, Dallas Holm, Jars of Clay, the late Anthony Burger, Elvis, Faith Hill, etc.

Relatively, Black Gospel is actually a recent music genre beginning in the early 1900s, though Gospel found its roots far earlier already in New England. Generally, Thomas Dorsey is recognized as the Father of what we call Black Gospel Music. Dorsey worked with several of the Gospel greats such as Sallie Martin and Mahalia Jackson. In 1945 we saw the beginning of tours by The Blue Jay Singers, The Soul Stirrers, and Spirit of Memphis. Modern-day performers include Al Green, Little Richard, etc.

Are you aware that actually, RAP got its start in LM instead of LA? Yes, black slaves would “rap” across the lower Mississippi (LM) cotton fields using coded gospel songs to let each other know where the Underground Railroad was leaving from that night to take them hopefully to freedom in the Northern USA!  For instance, when they sang about “crossing the River Jordan” they were referring to that night’s location to meet. There are three main traditions of Gospel Music and to learn more, check out this post.


Bluegrass has its origins with the legendary Bill Monroe of Kentucky. Monroe played mandolin and his brother Charlie played guitar. The Monroe Brothers performed as regulars on Charlotte’s WBT beginning in 1936. This led to an RCA recording contract; however, by 1938 Charlie had left to form his own band called the Kentucky Pardners along with newcomer Lester Flatt of Overton, Tennessee. Bill formed his legendary Blue Grass Boys landing a spot on the Grand Ole Opry by 1939, where he became a regular for the next 50 years.

Actually the music we know as Bluegrass did not fully develop until 1945 when Bill signed with Columbia, recording his famous signature Kentucky Waltz. By 1946, his band, The Blue Grass Boys, included Earl Scruggs on banjo, Lester Flatt on guitar, Howard Watts on bass, and Chubby Wise on fiddle.

Typical for Bluegrass is also the style played by the Lewis Family which was strongly influenced by legendary gospel groups that were dominating the sounds of the 1940s and 50s. They were influenced by great artists like The Chuckwagon Gang and Martha Carson. On the other hand, the Lewis Family definitely came with their own unique sound. Check out this 1970 “Best Of The Lewis Family” album to hear what White Gospel was all about.

By 1948 Flatt and Scruggs left to form their own band. Bill helped numerous Bluegrass performers with their careers including Jimmy Martin, Vassar Clements, Buddy Spicher, and banjoist Sonny Osborne. In the 1960s Bill became a star on the college campus Folk singing tours.  In 1967 he began his famous Bluegrass festival and in 1989 he celebrated 50 years with the Grand Ole Opry.

Another famous Bluegrass group was The Stanley Brothers of Virginia – Ralph and Carter.  The Stanley Brothers became known for their raw, emotional duet and trio vocal harmonies. After Carter’s death in 1966, Ralph formed another band which later included well-known performers Keith Whitley on guitar and Ricky Skaggs on mandolin. In 1980, Ralph performed with Emmylou Harris on his The Darkest Hour Is Just Before Dawn.

Ricky Skaggs has returned to his roots and become one of the leading Bluegrass performers and most importantly a spokesman for Bluegrass. Skaggs began his career at 5 and by the time he was 15 he was a member of Ralph Stanley’s band. His recording of Bill Monroe’s Uncle Penn became the first Bluegrass number by a solo artist to reach #1 on Billboard’s Country chart.  Also 1982 he became the youngest member at the time to be inducted into the Grand Ole Opry.

Many folks believe that Gospel Music is a phenomenon typical for the South but the roots of what we know as Gospel Music are actually dating back to New England in the 1730s. Gospel Music began when a New England preacher, Reverend Jonathan Edwards, set out on a religion-orientated revival that he named the “Great Awakening”.

More can be learned from the Gospel Music Association which was established in 1964. The Association runs the Gospel Music Hall of Fame and Museum and is really the face and voice of the Christian Gospel music community. The GMA is dedicated to celebrating, highlighting, and promoting gospel music which we have heard in numerous styles like Southern Gospel, Black Gospel, R&B, country, praise & worship, rock, pop, hip hop, and so on.

The community of the Gospel Music Association counts over 2 thousand members including artists, recording executives, church leaders, promoters, music agents and managers, radio hosts, retailers, songwriters, and many more music industry enthusiasts and visionaries.