Signifyin(g) Traditions and Techniques in Blues and Gospel

The myriad forms of African-American popular musicgospel, jazz, blues, hip-hop – are united by the cultural tradition of revision and repetition, of thoughtful reinterpretation. Religious and class-based conflict have historically burdened the relationship between Black sacred and secular music, causing two mutually dependent idioms to periodically separate. Many musicians who came of age within the musical culture of the African-American church chose to produce music that fell outside of the realm of sacred songwriting, an act that often caused resentment from the most self-consciously pious of congregations.

To clarify the phenomena uniting gospel and rhythm and blues forms, the following discussion will invoke a theoretical framework known as Signifyin(g); the term denotes the revision and repetition of, in this case, the tropes, techniques, language, and aesthetics from an outside source. The term is used to complicate and enrich the notions of imitation, parody, pastiche, and criticism; it is intertextuality and the acknowledgement of source and derivation.

Rhythm and Blues music Signifies on -- that is, repeats and revises the tropes and techniques of -- Black gospel music by rewriting its texts and meta-texts ("My Prayer", "Hallelujah I Love Her So", "Saved"), transferring their semantic values from the sacred to the secular; immersing rhythm and blues in the musical events and figures of gospel music (particularly the pianistic gestures of Ray Charles -- see the writing I've Got A Woman for a monogram on that particular recording and its significance within the gospel-blues continuum -- and Aretha Franklin in their recordings for Atlantic Records); creating a new space in popular music for emotive expression and spiritual individualism that references implicitly and explicitly the gospel tradition ; and educating (at times, very) young musicians in the techniques, possibilities, and performative practices of music arrangement in the church; and transferring the sermon's mode of articulation - confrontational, testifying, a continuum between speech and song - from the sacred sphere to the secular.

The Church as Womb

A significant group of the great performers of Black popular music during the twentieth-century are unified by their coming of age within the cultural and musical traditions of the Black church. Among its myriad functions and services to African-American communities, the church provides a place for young members of the congregation to express, experience, and create themselves through music.

In a typical African-American church, the adult congregation encourages children to take the stage, breaking down boundaries between public and private expression. The most active and confident of children become enamored with the performative position, stimulated by the relationship between themselves and the audience. In an ideal church situation, there are no boundaries between the performer and the audience; mediated through call and response, there is a unifying bond by which the expression of the performer or preacher becomes the expression of the audience whole.

The church builds community by encouraging the public expression of private emotions; despair, joy, and pain are shared and confirmed through communicative rituals such as song and dance. Audiences may be moved to a trance-like state: through dance, song, laughter, shouting, and general mayhem (“getting happy”) communion with God is enacted. Young people learn that--at least in the church--making public the private emotion is an uplifting experience. It is in this atmosphere that many African-American performers who are known for their production in the secular (rhythm and blues, jazz, soul) sphere came of age musically, emotionally, and spiritually.

Young men and women who continue their interest in sacred performance throughout adolescence are formally and informally educated in traditions of musical arrangement and choreography; an education which simultaneously reinforces African-American approaches to music-making. The tropes, techniques, and sound of gospel music; the testifying, speech-song delivery of the preacher; the potential for inducing a (liminal) trance-state; the affirmative and celebrative nature of the audience and performer: these concepts are learned at a young age as language, as and as a unifying vision of life. Expressive language forms the basis of all African-American music, and through this linguistic framework, in part, we will examine the deeply interdependent relation between gospel and rhythm and blues music.

The Taboo of Sacred-Secular Expression

To contemporary listeners, the boundaries between sacred and secular African-American music forms appear to have blurred to such an extent that the separation appears to rest solely on lyrical rather than musical and cultural approaches. Particularly in the first half of the twentieth-century, the institution of popular music polarized African-Americans. The religious core-culture –- the portion of the population that has remained closest to the roots and traditions of the Black church; whose primary cultural values lie within that community; whose concern for cultural assimilation appear to be secondary to its concern for community survival and the perpetuation of African-American religious behaviors and institutions (2) -- held a pronounced disdain for the emergent continuity between sacred and secular music. The conflict specifically grew out of the core-culture’s disapproval of the use of gospel tropes and techniques in rhythm and blues music, whose audience appeared to be growing rapidly in the post-war years.

For many young musicians who came of age in the 1950s – such as Ray Charles (born 1930), Sam Cooke (1931-1964), and Little Richard (b. 1932) – their musical development, economic ambition, and unprecedented exposure to popular culture through television and recordings propelled a powerful motivation to create secular music. Sam Cooke, together with the Soul Stirrers and producer Bumps Blackwell, created a highly influential and musically ambitious set of records for Specialty from 1953-1957; of which “Jesus Gave Me Water” (1953) and “Oh Mary, Don’t You Weep” (1955) are exemplary.

The musical and expressive achievements of the Soul Stirrers can be located in “the alternating lead to gospel quartet singing (a device that would be taken up by the pop quartets of the 1960s). The lead singers freely negotiated the musical ecology with melismas and bent notes, with Sam Cooke’s falsetto cries and yodels leading the group to church-wrecking exploits” (Floyd 173). While these recordings were steeped in the speech-song and call-and-response techniques so important to Black music, and gospel in particular, they consciously separated themselves from the darker and earthier records of Alex Bradford (Savoy Records), The Five Blind Boys of Mississippi and the Dixie Hummingbirds (Peacock Records).

Gospel groups of the 1950s, such as the Soul Stirrers, produced a body of work that drew from a syncretizing of several styles, their performances were characterized by precise rhythmic articulation; improvisatory, blues-inflected melismatic and motivic delivery; rhythmic, melodic, and harmonic repetition; emphasis on the primary chords (I, IV, V); call-and-response dialogue involving the singers and their accompanying instruments; and the encouraging yea-saying vocal interjections of performers and audiences alike. Indeed, the Soul Stirrers Signified on the records of the (first incarnation of) the Drifters, the Platters, and the Spaniels, who had in turn adapted their sound from gospel music; they did so by revising the polished vocal texture and urban-oriented sound (“doo-wop”) of those northern vocal groups while transforming it into gospel music. In doing so, The Soul Stirrers endeared themselves especially to New York City, Chicago, Illinois, and Detroit, Michigan audiences who appreciated the message and dynamism of gospel alongside the modern, danceable sounds of rhythm and blues.

The Soul Stirrers were the most commercially successful gospel group of the late-1950s. While Sam Cooke nurtured his position within the Black sacred community, he aspired to court a wider audience by fusing his gospel vocal feeling and musical expression to youthful pop lyrics. He and co-conspirator Bumps Blackwell defied the agenda of Specialty Records-founder Art Rupe by recording “You Send Me” (Keen Records, 1958), which featured Cooke’s nuanced, impeccably precise delivery; Blackwell’s warm choral and orchestral arrangement; and a musical conception that closely followed the Soul Stirrers gospel singles. The result was one of the most successful and durable hits in all of Black musical history (#1 for 7 weeks, Billboard R&B Charts; #1-3 pop).

Independent record labels such as Specialty, Chess Records and Atlantic Records were white-owned enterprises who produced music for African-Americans. Art Rupe, Specialty’s owner and chief producer, resigned Sam Cooke from the label for recording “You Send Me”; the record did not conform to the conception of Black music that he envisioned. Scoring massive success with some of the most durable and influential singles of the era -- such as: Joe LigginsThe Honeydripper” (1945, #1 for 18 weeks which remains the most successful #1 hit in R&B history), Guitar SlimThe Things That I Used To Do” (1954, #1-14) and Little RichardLong Tall Sally” (1956, #1-8) – Rupe held a stereotypical view of the musical tastes of African-Americans and the type of music they were capable of performing, a view which conformed with the industry at large. “He had this notion that everything had to loud: ‘we understand you people, and this is what you do best’” (3). Aware of Cooke’s following in the gospel fear, Rupe feared alienating the label’s loyal audience by publishing music which violated the sacred-secular expression taboo.

While the industry’s resistance to Cooke’s introduction of gospel to R&B was understandable, by Signifying on –- that is, revising and criticizing the traditions and taboos of –- Black music, Sam Cooke: brought formerly strict rhythm and blues listeners to explore gospel, and gospel listeners to rhythm and blues; expanded the musical boundaries of Black music; and paved the way for gospel-rich soul music (e.g. Solomon Burke, Otis Redding, and Percy Sledge) and Black Pop (Brook Benton, Lloyd Price, Jackie Wilson). The message was that rhythm and blues need not concern itself solely with the Saturday-night, blues-based evocations of lust and desire so popular in the 1950’s – as in, Wynonie HarrisAll She Wants To Do Is Rock” (King 1950, #1-2); the DominoesSixty Minute Man” (Federal 1951, #1-14); The CoastersSearchin'” (Atlantic 1957, #1-12) – but could encompass sublime heights of poetic lyricism and musical warmth, the very message of transcendent love that Cooke directs towards his companion in “You Send Me”.

The success of Sam Cooke’s “You Send Me” further ruptured the discourse forbidding the fusion of sacred and secular expression that Ray Charles had begun with “I’ve Got A Woman”. The following year, Jerry Butler (b. 1939), a young, full-bodied baritone, forged a profoundly moving statement of romantic devotion in “For Your Precious Love” (Vee-Jay 1958, R&B #3) with the Chicago-based group The Impressions (vocal group from Chicago, Illinois; with Butler, Sam Gooden, and leader Curtis Mayfield). Jerry Butler and producer Calvin Carter immersed the song in a dark, hymn-like melancholy that communicates with religious intensity. The Impressions employed Black gospel background singers of both genders whose voices contrasted -- a key value of black music, musical harmony emphasizes sounds that contrast and conflict, rather than blend, as in Western European classical music -- in an emotionally effective manner.

For Your Precious Love” had Curtis Mayfield further enrich the musical texture with a guitar “favoring the lower notes and using a heavy reverb echo that evoked the sound of Pop Staples of the Staple Singers a gospel vocal group” (Gillett 220). The result is a soulful ballad that Signifies on gospel music in a subtle, complex way. Rather than transfer the ecstatic jubilation of a revival meeting as Ray Charles had in “What’d I Say” (1959, #1) or manipulate religious texts like “Saved” and “Have Mercy Baby”, all of which enact Signifying on many levels, “For Your Precious Love” absorbs the spirit of faith and devotion from the church, refiguring its tropes and techniques.

Collectivity and The African-American Preacher

Soul music may be considered – among many other, equally valid definitions – as a gospel-infused hybrid of rhythm and blues and country-western music. While the musical tropes and techniques of gospel music figure prominently in soul, a more vast, though subtle change had penetrated the music; soul denoted a type of music capable of expressive interiority. This innovation signified a unity of public and private spheres, an aesthetic space where pain, agony, and deep, adult conceptions of love could be expressed. The ritual of outing private emotions to an empathetic public is a phenomenon of the Black church in particular; it builds community and solidarity, forging a symbiotic relationship between listener and performer.

Gospel music complicated rhythm & blues in the late-1950s; it made the form capable of communicating: the pleading call-and-response of James Brown in “Try Me” (1958, #1); the intensity and trauma of Ray Charles in “Drown In My Own Tears” (1956, #1-2), which, like much of his music, took advantage of the ornaments, bent notes, cries, piano figures, and the pulsating, triplet sense of rhythm; and the ecstasy and swelling frenzy of Roy HamiltonDon’t Let Go” (1958, #2) and Jackie WilsonI’ll Be Satisfied” (1959, #6).

African-American music enacts Signfiyin(g) very directly with gospel music and the Black church as a whole by reimagining the lead vocalist as a preacher, reciter of sermon or knowledgeable sage . The Black preacher, through his or her ritual form meditates on history by way of a direct, elevated manner of speech. “One hears in the voice of the preacher the beat of the tom-tom…The preacher is the transformational agent who walks the critical tightrope between the sacred and the secular. As the tap root of black American discourse, his speech act is the agent for historical location.” (4) Like the preacher, a vocalist in the African-American tradition often occupies a more crucial position than the interpreter of a song-text.

Joe Tex (1933-1982), a singer within the southern soul tradition, engages his audience in a direct, sermonic mode of discourse. In “Hold What You’ve Got” (Dial 1965, #2), his debut single, Tex performs the verse in a speech-song style that weighs heavily on the speech pole of the continuum. Running against the grain of similar singles, Tex addresses the male sector of his audience (for the first verse) in a deeply visual way; he seems to look the listener directly in the eye. He urges ‘him’ to learn from the mistakes the orator has made, the mistakes he has indeed built his life upon; to question the assumptions that a life is built upon; and to revise and grow from the narrative provided. He does so in a pleading, authoritarian – though pleasant – manner derived explicitly and implicitly from the church experience.

The Falcons (1958-1963) - a highly influential Detroit-based vocal group – collected regionally famous gospel singers Eddie Floyd (known for his hit, “Knock On Wood”, 1968), Mack Rice (“Mustang Sally”, 1963), Joe Stubbs (“Do You Love Me”, 1963), and Wilson Pickett (“In The Midnight Hour”, 1965). Their second major single “I Found A Love” (Lupine 1962, #6) captures one of the most emotionally tense and joyous moments of gospel-inspired feeling. “I Found A Love”, cut in 1959, is among the first examples of the preaching, sermonizing mode of speech-song to be heard on a secular record. Joe Stubbs, who provides the lead vocal, transforms the simple text (I found a love/That I Need/Oh Yes!) into a powerful vision of commitment through his dramatic conception of the song.

The brother of Joe Stubbs, Levi, continued the tradition of deeply felt, near-aggressive gospel introspection in his recordings with the Four Tops for Motown Records. In “Reach Out, I’ll Be There” (1966, #1-2) and “Standing In The Shadows Of Love” (1967, #2), Stubbs sings in a heavily elevated, declamatory style that endeared itself to legions of African-American fans. Produced by Brian Holland, Lamont Dozier, and Eddie Holland, the same team who created the dramatic, frantic atmosphere for the Supremes “Stop! In The Name Of Love” (1965, #2) and Martha and the VandellasNowhere To Run” (1965, #5), “Reach Out, I’ll Be There” is ignited by the preacher-like determination alongside “the sheer size of the sound, its physical impact; the wild echo that makes the countermelody carried by the flute exotic and errie; equalization that polarizes voice and drums; and the producer’s use of the Detroit Symphony as an adjunct rhythm section” (5).

Aside from their top single “I Can’t Help Myself” (1965, #1-9, pop #1-2), the Four Tops were one of the few Motown acts who achieved much greater success (in terms of radio play and sales) with an African-American R&B, not a mainstream pop, audience. One reason for this overwhelming popularity with a Black audience is listener identification. The emotive, sermonic style of delivery enacted here alienates passive listenership; the music, in its heart-stopping depth and intensity, demands full attention. The Four Tops -- like Joe Tex, the Falcons, and Ray Charles alongside them -- engaged in a Signifyin(g) ritual by employing a performative, elevated mode of vocal delivery that references implicitly and explicitly the African-American preacher.

The underlying meaning behind this analysis is that gospel music and rhythm and blues complement and collude in more ways than they conflict. Political and cultural elitism – the (‘holier than thou’) worldview – among other social phenomena within some communities blocked aesthetic communication between the two idioms. Being that many musicians came of age in the Black church, it is only natural that the techniques and tropes of gospel music would figure in their secular musical sphere. Some musicians – like Ray Charles, Aretha Franklin, and Joe Tex – however, layered their relations to gospel music and the church; they Signified on gospel by appropriating its texts and contexts; its diversity of manner and mode; its concern for making public the private emotion; and its tendency for expressive evocation of the preacher and sermon. Musicians more often than not, engaged in this discourse, not to parody or diminish the church, but to play with and reproduce its meanings and methods throughout the fabric of cultural life.


Andrews, William, The Oxford Companion To African-American Literature. New York: Oxford University Press, 1997. Fascinating reference book, this text relates important African-American concepts such as jazz, the church, identity, slavery, racism and many more to their realization in literature.

Floyd, Samuel. The Power of Black Music. New York: Oxford University Press, 1994. The most influential book in my academic life; especially in its understanding of the power and presence of myth and ritual in Black music. Floyd builds upon the theoretical, aesthetic, and literary framework developed in Henry Louis Gates’s work, applying it to music. In doing so he ironically, beautifully Signifies on Gates as well as the research of Nketia and Wilson.

Gates, Henry Louis. The Signifying Monkey. New York: Oxford University Press, 1988. Deep,thoroughly challenging text that develops the theory of Signifyin(g) and its realization in important African-American texts. Most directly used for its discussion of The Trope of the Talking Book, a concept applicable to music.

Gillett, Charles. The Sound of the City. New York: Pantheon, 1970. Invaluable in its rigorous and fairly comprehensive study of the record industry and its musicians. It lacks descriptive depth while over-categorizing the music it appreciates. Perhaps it’s too objective; nevertheless, an illuminating journey.

Marsh, Dave. The Heart of Rock and Soul. Da Capo, 1985 (1999 ed.). An unashamedly subjective choice of 1000 singles from 1950-1985 with chronological and producer meta-data. Marsh relates each single to instrumental features and value; his personal history; notes of the effects and influence exerted by certain singles – and often many of these qualities.

Ward, Brian. Just My Soul Responding: Rhythm and Blues, Black Consciousness, and Race Relations. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1998. A brilliant, challenging text in its ability to relate cultural movements and attitudes to music and its industry. Unlike Ken Burns, the study relates musical phenomena to historical shifts in a way that elucidates the reader’s understanding of musical aesthetics and political attitudes.

Whitman, Joel. Billboard Top R&B Singles: 1942-1999. Menomonee Falls: Record Research, 2000. The most scientific – though admittedly problematic – (re)source available for the historical evaluation of listener taste, here as directed towards African-American popular music; invaluable for chronologically listing every single to have charted and providing accurate biographical information on almost every listed artist.

Wilson, Olly. “Black Music As An Art Form,” Black Music Research Journal 3. Contains the African-American conceptual approaches to music-making.


1 First applied to literary criticism by Henry Louis Gates (1988) and to musical phenomena by Samuel Floyd (1994), see source list.

2 Adapted from Floyd (1993), pg. 10.

3 Battiste, Harold. Interview with Brian Ward, November 8, 1995, UNOHC. Quoted in Ward (1998).

4 Andrews, William. The Oxford Companion to African-American Literature. New York: Oxford University Press, 1997.

5 Marsh, Dave. The Heart Of Rock & Soul. New York: Da Capo, 1985 (ed. 1999). Pp. 5-6.

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