Music of “Freedom Song”

“God sets the lonely in families, he leads out the prisoners with singing….” — Psalm 68:6a (New International Version)

All music that tells the story of redemption through Jesus Christ is gospel music.  Yet in some circles “gospel music” is confined to a niche — a certain style of music, generally music associated with African-Americans. 

True, while there are variations of “gospel music” depending on region (usually a modifying region of the United States: Southern gospel, Appalachian gospel — is there such a thing as Asian gospel or Indian gospel?) , for the purposes of this conversation, track with the premise that in many views, the phrase “gospel music” is synonymous with “black gospel music.”

In that sense, components of “gospel music” are symbolized by two easily identifiable images: a choir, and robes.  These symbols come from a powerful aesthetic in African-American heritage; yet there are dangers in defining gospel music and African-Americans by these two symbols alone.

One danger is that of co-opting the sound of gospel music for other messages.  Think, for instance, how often you have heard “gospel music” in a film, television program or commercial, none of which is associated with the gospel of Christ? Enjoyable as the sound may be, the listener must discern the context.

The other danger is underestimating the impact of various styles of music upon liberating Africans in America.  That liberation developed as the robed-choirs connected the music of the times and the regions where they lived with the lyrics from which they were rooted:  the Hebrew and New Testament scriptures those that professed good news gospel music of Jesus Christ as He intended — to link man and God.



Hear “Free Indeed” based on John 8:36.

More than Black’s History

Exploring that link, and telling the story of how gospel music has developed in the United States is the purpose of “Freedom Song,” one of the ensemble plays from the Kingdom Impact Theater Ministries history cycle.  The script was created in 2011 as reader’s theater presentation in response to a  request for a church’s African-American History Month program.  Since then, “Freedom Song” has been presented annually as part of church and corporate commemorations in February.  Because of those performances, “Freedom Song” has received subsequent off-season productions – not just during African-American history month. 

Its  themes extend beyond February, beyond the topic of physical slavery in the U.S., beyond the confines of the American shores.  The weaving of Scripture, song history and musical genres create a tale of liberation through Christ from an assortment of enslaving circumstances and behaviors.

Indeed, taking into account the headlines of any given day — perhaps, even, the last hour — it’s natural to conclude that if cries and flights to freedom are universal, then perhaps the key to liberation is beyond the state of any particular union. Or nation. This ageless human cry to escape through a designated liberator became more recognizable as the music listened to over time and in different places became more poignant when heard collectively, especially as the tales of how they were created or utilized were discovered.


Films & Noir

Over 30 songs from America’s colonial slavery to millennial technology bondage are sampled, dramatized and  in the program that is staged as an abbreviated one-act or movie-length  outreach complete with a post-performance talk-back.  In the course of the evening, the audience receives new insight into traditional, beloved gospel music, and is introduced to newer selections that don’t have the gospel music sound, but deliver the gospel of Christ message.   Researching the songs that inspired the script provided more insight than performance times allow.  Nevertheless, the insights and sounds are too important to NOT share.  And so, we compiled most of the songs that inspired the script’s creation into a playlist, assembled on our KIT Ministries YouTube Channel, and have written short essays about each song or song sequence.  We will post those essays and the songs on these pages and our social media pages in coming days as our commemoration of  how Scriptures have shaped African-America.

For starters, we present the entire playlist here along with a brief introduction to the show.   By listening to the playlist, you’ll find unlikely musical connections between  Czechoslovakian classical composer Anton Dvorak and American folk icon Paul Robeson; poet James Weldon Johnson and rappers Doughboy the Midwest Maestro and DJ Kool Rod;  Peter, Paul  & Mary, and Mavis Staples.  You’ll also see rare performances by Sister Rosetta TharpeMahalia Jackson and Richie Havens, and provocative movie clips the voice of African-Americans and  gospel music in film.

​Visit these FacebookTwitter and Pinterest pages for daily posts on individual songs.  Most of the songs will be posted during African-American History Month.  However, don’t be surprised if posting continues into the days after Feb. 28.  Just as African-American history occurs beyond the end of February, the gospel of Christ cannot be contained to just 28 days.

Please consider adding the entire “Freedom Song” playlist to your YouTube channel.

Michael Edgar Myers Freedom Song
Videos of Paul Robeson, Burt Lancaster, Eddie James influence the “Freedom Song” script.

A History of Gospel Music

For those who wish to learn about the genre of “gospel music,” we recommend, “Make a Joyful Noise!  A Brief History of Gospel Music Ministry in America,” available in print or audiobook.  The book was written by Kathryn B. Kemp and is narrated by KIT Ministries Founding Director Michael Edgar Myers and award-winning audiobook actor Barbara Ann Martin.

Make a Joyful Noise Cover

Dr. Kemp gives great detail and colorful anecdotes about how many gospel songs in the U.S. developed through painstaking adaptation and recording from their roots among African Tribes and maintained throughout despite the efforts to disassociate the slaves from those roots on these shores.

Kemp also relates the development of those songs on record, mostly through the efforts of Rev. James Cleveland, founder of the Gospel Music Workshop of America.

LEARN MORE

MEMos and Musings

Because we were asked to create a new script based in faith and African-American history, we are not touring “Freedom Song” this February. It’s the first time in five years. “Freedom Song” is available after Easter, and our new show, “Strolling Down MLK Street,” has limited availability through the spring and thereafter.

Since both shows evoke questions and conversation, we want to make available not just the music and song stories that we’ve employed, but also other research and commentaries about faith and ethnicity in America. Not just because this is African-American History Month. Just because they’re fascinating and sometimes fun. Like, we hope, the three below: previous faith-race-and-history blogs from Worship Wonderings and a MEMoFromMichaelEdgarMyers that seem to still have relevance as well as an occasional off-kilter perspective about race. Feel free to read, ask questions, share a thought, and enjoy.

Related African-American History Stories

A Black Jew, A Female Pastor, A Segregationist and Thou

“Look, Grandfather (Nubians)!”

MaMa & Obama: 10 Years After

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Carol Story: Africans in America Go To The Mountain

It may be fair to conclude that the first Christmas carol created on the shores of the U.S. was by Americans of African descent. That is, African-Americans.

Keep in mind that, in #CarolStory, the ten-minute play by Kingdom Impact Theater Ministries, the definition of a Christmas carol is a song that includes the salvation message of Christ amid the story of the birth of Jesus.

Until “Go Tell It on the Mountain” was put to paper by John Wesley Work Jr., in 1906, the traditional carols sung in the States originated in Europe. Work collected, transcribed and published numerous songs born from the oral traditions of African-American slavery. Many were sung by the original Fisk Jubilee Singers after the Civil War.

LEARN MORE: John Wesley Work & Fisk University Singers

“Go Tell It…” embodies the faith many slaves deeply held in Christianity as their route to freedom once they unraveled the scriptures for themselves. This contasted with acquiescence to the limited Bible knowledge misappropriated by their owners to justify enslavement.

As with many slave songs, “Go Tell It…” is coded. The title implies the direct evangelical imperative to go and tell others of Him that Jesus gave after His resurrection; His earlier declaration that even the rocks would tell who He is, and the post-birth sharing by the birth by the shepherds and the Wise Men. Such allusions made the song palatable to owners who missed the potential abolitionist cues “to go” from place to places and prepare for liberation.

The latter idea was not lost upon civil rights advocates in the 1960s who adapted the tune and lyrics as a freedom song.

Many recorded arrangements of “Go Tell It…” embellish the lyrics with joyous gospel funk rhythms, and live choirs embrace the audience sing-along qualities. Either interpretation is effective. The #CarolStoryPlaylist includes video versions that show the universality of the lyrics, and represent the sacred passion of the Negro spirituals which Works captured from the Jubilee Singers.

The playlist again employs a rendition by the Queen of Gospel, Mahalia Jackson, that reflects the soulful hope characteristic in spirituals.
The universal influence of “Go Tell It…” is illustrated in two videos borrowed from the playlist of “Freedom Song,” the Kingdom Impact Theater Ministries historical program about African-American music and Biblical scriptures. One is a recording by a choir in Oslo, Norway. The other, by the 1960s folk music trio Peter, Paul and Mary, captures the abolitionist spirit by adapting the lyrics as a civil rights anthem show.

LEARN MORE:Adapted Lyrics and Recordings History.

One More Thing…

John Wesley Work Jr.
John Wesley Work Jr.

Not as well known as the European composers before him, many of the authors of gospel and Christmas songs afterwards, or even the Fisk Jubilee Singers whose music he catalogued and chronicled, John Wesley Work Jr. Is an important person to know and study. And so, we link.

LEARN MORE: John Wesley Work Jr. Biography.

LEARN MORE: Songs Adapted, Arranged by John Wesley Work Jr.


Mahalia Jackson

Mahalia Jackson’s classic, unplugged recording, 1950.

Mahalia Jackson was an American gospel singer. Possessing a powerful contralto voice, she was referred to as “The Queen of Gospel.”  She became one of the most influential gospel singers in the world and was heralded internationally as a singer and civil rights activist. She was described by entertainer Harry Belafonte as “the single most powerful black woman in the United States”. She recorded about 30 albums (mostly for Columbia Records) during her career, and her 45 rpm records included a dozen “golds”—million-sellers.

LEARN MOREMahalia Jackson Biography

Mahalia Jackson is also one of the individuals whose story is included in  the Kingdom Impact Theater production, “Faith, Hope & Love:  History-Making Women of Faith,” a one-woman performance by Vikki J.  Myers.


The Oslo Gospel Choir

Oslo Gospel Choir is a Norwegian gospel choir centred in Oslo, Norway conducted by Tore W. Aas. The choir started in 1988 and has become one of the most successful in Europe and America. They have released around 20 albums. They are very much influenced by the American black gospel sound and Andraé Crouch is a major source of inspiration, with his approach in taking the gospel out of the churches and into other arenas, reaching a larger audience. The choir has sold over 1.5 million albums.

LEARN MORE: Oslo Gospel Choir History


Peter, Paul & Mary

Peter, Paul and Mary was an American folk group formed in New York City in 1961, during the American folk music revival phenomenon. The trio was composed of tenor Peter Yarrow, baritone Noel Paul Stookey and alto Mary Travers. The group’s repertoire included songs written by Yarrow and Stookey, early songs by Bob Dylan as well as covers of other folk musicians. After the death of Travers in 2009, Yarrow and Stookey continued to perform as a duo under their individual names.

LEARN MORE: Peter, Paul and Mary History.

Carol Story: A Silent Night Anniversary

Silent Night” is the quintessential Christmas song. It’s virtually impossible for any artist to record a Christmas album and not have a rendition.  In this 200th anniversary of the song’s creation, we thought  it fun to expand the variety of recordings of the song to show its durability and to underscore the need to not let musicality overshadow the message of the lyrics.

Sis. Vanetta Pinn, who curated our Carol Story YouTube Playlist, included versions by Mariah CareyJustin Bieber and Boyz II Men for our re-posting consideration.  We’ve linked these videos to give a glimpse of vocal variations, musical arranging and technical production growth through the years. 

LEARN MORE:  “Silent Night” 200th anniversary observations

We’ve also included a medley by KIT Ministries co-founder Vikki J. Myers as a sample of how Christmas music can be merged with non-seasonal worship selections to give a sense of how the Christmas message lasts beyond the holidays.

However, for the purposes of our #CarolStory live presentation, the renditions that best  reflect the backstory nuances are by Andrea Bocelli and Mahalia Jackson . 

See December Archives (left) for other “Carol Story” stories.

In the context of #CarolStory,  the 10-minute worship play, “Silent Night” is woven with five other standard carols — “It Came Upon a Midnight Clear,” “O Holy Night,” “Hark! The Herald,” “O Little Town of Bethlehem,” and “The Hallelujah Chorus” to establish the atmosphere of fear, awe and respect that the shepherds experienced when the Heavenly Host appeared on “The Night” when Christ was born. (The Gospel of Luke, Chapter 2, verses 8-15)

LEARN MORE:  “Carol Story” The Script

Bocelli, singing in Italian, brings to mind the European feel of the original German carol written by Franz Gruber.  We wonder how Gruber may respond to the variety of arrangements of the song, especially considering the urgent and somewhat controversial circumstances  under which he wrote the piece for Christmas Eve 1818.

LEARN MORE:  History of “Silent Night”

There’s a nostalgic prejudice for Mahalia Jackson’s version.  It was among the first “church” Christmas songs I heard (as opposed to the just-released “Frosty,” “Rudolph” and “Jingle Bell Rock,”) and was a family favorite.  Mother was not a singer but held her own singing along whenever the record  (as in vinyl) played , or when the Spirit moved her to burst into song  while baking cookies — thinking she was alone in the kitchen in the middle of the night.

As with other selections in this piece, the lyrics of “Silent Night” are woven throughout the play to move the story along and work effectively as scene exposition transitioning between scenes.

​LEARN MORE:“Carol Story” Live


Andrea Bocelli

Andrea Bocelli, “Silent Night” (Italian)

Andrea Bocelli is an Italian singer, songwriter, and record producer. Celin Dion, with whom he recorded “The Prayer,”  has said that “if God would have a singing voice, he must sound a lot like Andrea Bocelli.” 

Bocelli has recorded 15 solo studio albums of both pop and classical music, three greatest hits albums, and nine complete operas, selling over 90 million records worldwide. He has had success as a crossover performer, bringing classical music to the top of international pop charts.

He was born with poor eyesight and became completely blind at age 12, following a football accident.


 “The Prayer,” his duet with Celine Dion for the animated film Quest for Camelot ,  won the Golden Globe Award for Best Original Song and was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Original Song in 1999. — Source:  Wikipedia

LEARN MORE:  Andre Bocelli Today

Mahalia Jackson

Mahalia Jackson’s “Silent Night,” a personal family favorite.

Mahalia Jackson was an American gospel singer. Possessing a powerful contralto voice, she was referred to as “The Queen of Gospel.”  She became one of the most influential gospel singers in the world and was heralded internationally as a singer and civil rights activist. She was described by entertainer Harry Belafonte as “the single most powerful black woman in the United States”. She recorded about 30 albums (mostly for Columbia Records) during her career, and her 45 rpm records included a dozen “golds”—million-sellers.

“I sing God’s music because it makes me feel free,”  Jackson once said about her choice of gospel, adding, “It gives me hope. With the blues, when you finish, you still have the blues.” — Source:  Wikipedia.

LEARN MORE:  Mahalia Jackson Biography

One More Thing

Mahalia Jackson is also one of the individuals whose story is included in  the Kingdom Impact Theater production, “Faith, Hope & Love:  History-Making Women of Faith,” a one-woman performance by Vikki J.  Myers.

More Christmas MEMos and Wonderings

Advent Revelations

Christmas and All The (Indy) News

Shopping at 15

Combatting Cultural Christmas

Sinterklaas, Piet and Me

Sophomoric Christmas

Worship in The Barn

The Virgin Shall Be With Child: Really?

When the 25th Is Over