The Timelessness of Black Gospel Christmas Music
The rich sounds of Black Christmas spirituals reflect the true spirit of the Christmas Season
WACO, Texas (Dec. 21, 2023) – From the traditional sound of Go Tell it on the Mountain to the contemporary style of Kirk Franklin, Black Gospel Christmas music conveys a sense of wonder and passion for the Christmas season and the birth of our Savior. Two Baylor University experts in Black gospel music, Bob Darden and Stephen Newby, share their love of the rich sounds of Christmas spirituals, which differ from Christmas carols in sound and history, through two special recordings – “Black Nativity” and “Christmas Celebration”.
Black gospel Christmas songs reflect the deep personal connection enslaved people had with the Christmas story. Baylor Emeritus Professor and founder of Baylor’s Black Gospel Music Preservation Program, Robert (Bob) F. Darden, describes Christmas spirituals as profoundly moving.
“The enslaved poets who wrote those spirituals believed that the events depicted in the New Testament were happening in real-time and in a neighboring town or state – not in the distant past across the ocean,” said Darden. “Jesus, Mary, Joseph, the shepherds and angels were very real to them, which gives these songs a beautiful sense of childlike wonder and intimacy.”
“Singing ‘Go Tell It on the Mountain,’ reflects the heart-language of the enslaved, and invites us to join in solidarity with all creation as we live out God’s liberating kingdom here on earth,” said Stephen M. Newby, D.M.A., Ambassador for The Black Gospel Music Preservation Program and professor of music.
In a recent video, Newby and Darden discuss Langston Hughes’ Broadway musical Black Nativity from 1961 as an example of classic gospel music. Hughes had a dream to tell the Nativity story from the Gospel of Matthew using old spirituals and classic Christmas carols. Although not a big hit on Broadway, it continues to be popular with Black/African American audiences and its influence can be heard in contemporary musicals like The Wiz and The Lion King.
Darden also said that slaves had a more intimate understanding of the nativity story because they identified with the conditions into which Christ was born. They understood what it was like to come from a foreign land to a place where they were despised and enslaved in the same way that Christ was born as a refugee child with people seeking to kill him.
"The spirituals reflect a people who believe they're in the middle of the Bible story. I think that gives them a power that's hard for others to match and why the Gospel artists, who would later record these songs, tried to capture that and keep that immediacy and intimacy that I think a lot of Christmas carols don't have," Darden said.
For a modern version of Christmas gospel music, Newby recommends “A Christmas Celebration” by Kirk Franklin and the Family. Franklin presents new ideas about Christmas that work in both sacred and secular gatherings.
“There are wonderful re-harmonizations of Christmas classics featuring Franklin's gospel vocalese arrangements,” said Newby. “Several solo voices throughout preach, teach and declare the spirit of Christmas highlighting the diverse palette of Black Worship.”
Released in 1995, Franklin’s only Christmas recording features a Generation Z soundscape, complementing some of the greatest canonical Neo Soul, Funk and Hip-Hop Artistry of the day such as Prince, Whitney Houston, Boyz II Men, and The Jackson Family.
“Jesus Is The Reason for The Season” stands out for Dr. Newby as especially relevant in today’s world. “As so many folks in the Black community struggle economically, the pressure to purchase gifts is draining,” said Newby.
Franklin's lyrics state: "I don't need material things, all I need is joy you bring,"
“His lyrics place the emphasis on God giving all Creation, Emmanuel, God with us. Such a re-imaginative constructive twist on the pressures of gift buying is winsome, freeing up the listener to worship and to celebrate the arrival of the Messiah,” said Newby.
An invitation to listen
Darden said the modern world still needs Christmas spirituals. While commercialism gets people excited and inspired for the holidays, people in need something that will help them reflect on what truly matters about the season. They need something that will not only remind them of history but will also evoke the sensation of gratitude for a needed Savior.
"By noticing and listening to the words of the spirituals, you see how they focused on what really matters—a child is born under the most desperate of circumstances," Darden said. "This season isn't about shopping malls. The season is about remembering that the King chose to be born in the most despised, hated and vulnerable of times."
Newby added, “If you've not heard these recordings, get your favorite snack and drink, relax, celebrate and worship with Kirk Franklin and The Family's timeless ‘Christmas Classic’ or ‘Black Nativity’ – it's worth the listen.”
Recordings from the Black Gospel Music Preservation Program (BGMPP) are available online in the Baylor Libraries Digital Collection , which includes, in some cases, taped interviews, photographs, press packets, tour books and programs, newspaper and magazine clippings and sheet music.
The BGMPP also provides gospel music for the Smithsonian's National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, D.C.
ABOUT ROBERT F. DARDEN
A former Gospel Music Editor for Billboard Magazine, Darden is the author of "People Get Ready! A New History of Black Gospel," "Nothing But Love in God's Water, Volume I: Black Sacred Music from the Civil War to the Civil Rights Movement" and "Nothing But Love in God's Water, Volume II: Black Sacred Music from Sit-In to Resurrection City. In 2016, he created the radio program, "Shout! Black Gospel Music Moments," which airs on KWBU-FM in Waco, as well as eight NPR affiliates around the nation.
Darden was named Professor Emeritus by Baylor University in 2023.
ABOUT STEPHEN NEWBY, D.M.A.
Stephen Michael Newby currently holds The Lev H. Prichard III Endowed Chair in the Study of Black Worship and Professor of Music and serves as Ambassador for The Black Gospel Music Preservation Program at Baylor University. He formerly served as Minister of Worship at Peachtree Presbyterian Church in Atlanta, GA, as Director for the Center for African American Worship Studies at Trevecca Nazarene University in Nashville, TN. He held a tenured Professor of Music post at Seattle Pacific University, where he also served as Director of University Ministries, Director for the Center for Worship, and Senior Advisor to the University President for Missional Excellence. He has more than three decades of university-level teaching and administration to his credit.
BLACK GOSPEL MUSIC PRESERVATION PROGRAM
The purpose of the Black Gospel Music Preservation Program (BGMPP) is to identify, acquire, preserve, record and catalogue the most at-risk music from the black gospel music tradition. This collection will primarily contain 78s, 45s, LPs, and the various tape formats issued in the United States and abroad between the 1940s and the 1980s. Additionally, any ephemera that may be of use to scholars – including PR photos and press packets, taped interviews, informal photographs, tour books and programs, newspaper and magazine clippings, and sheet music – will also be acquired as it becomes available. The ultimate goal is to have a copy of every song released by every black gospel artist or group during the target time period.
ABOUT BAYLOR UNIVERSITY
Baylor University is a private Christian University and a nationally ranked Research 1 institution. The University provides a vibrant campus community for more than 20,000 students by blending interdisciplinary research with an international reputation for educational excellence and a faculty commitment to teaching and scholarship. Chartered in 1845 by the Republic of Texas through the efforts of Baptist pioneers, Baylor is the oldest continually operating University in Texas. Located in Waco, Baylor welcomes students from all 50 states and more than 100 countries to study a broad range of degrees among its 12 nationally recognized academic divisions.