Gospel Music or the Blues, Which Came First?

The other night I saw the amazing sacred steel gospel band, the Campbell Brothers. I had seen them before and this time, like the last time, I was standing and clapping and waving my arms over my head for most of the concert. The joy and positive energy their music transmits to a roomful of people is remarkable.

At one point, guitarist Phil Campbell engaged in a little between song banter. To paraphrase:campbell_brothers

We are often asked which came first, gospel music or the blues. The Campbell Brothers believe they arose at the same time, because blues players were playing gospel music and gospel musicians were playing blues. The same people who played the blues in a juke joint on Saturday night  played gospel music in a church on Sunday morning.

I am not a musicologist or music historian, but this makes sense to me. Early bluesman Blind Lemon Jefferson made gospel recordings under a different name. And there is little doubt that the earliest blues and gospel musicians were hearing each other play, and likely “borrowing” from each other. [Related post: Blind Willie Johnson Meet Blind Lemon Jefferson.]

Juke Joint Chapel posterBut what appeals to me most about this is the notion that the same person produced secular and sacred music and both types of music moved the body and the spirit, both Saturday night and Sunday morning.

At one point during Phil Campbell’s music lesson he clasped his hands, like some do in prayer, and shook them, signifying the inextricable interweave of these musical genres. I liked that.

Here’s a Campbell Brothers song for your listening pleasure. It’s wonderful, but I don’t think any recorded medium can really capture what happens when you see them live. But then that’s the challenge, isn’t it?


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