When you listen to “Today’s Hits” on Spotify or tune in to the radio to see what new artists have popped up, do you stop to think of where that music comes from? Do you wonder about the history behind it, or how it came to be? I don’t. Or at least I didn’t – until I met Robert Darden, founder of the Black Gospel Music Restoration Project at Baylor University. Besides being an all-around lover of African-American music, he is also the former Gospel Music Editor for Billboard Magazine.  

The truth of popular American music is that a lot of people don’t know that it all stems from black music. The entrancing rhythms and heavy reliance on improvisation attracted many, which later developed into common genres such as Blues and Rock-n-Roll.

Because he has devoted his life to recovering lost records of black gospel music, it stands to say that Darden is always happy to share his passion and love with others. So, here is Darden’s list of both familiar favorites and lesser-known gospel and freedom songs that have greatly influenced American music.

Included is commentary from Robert Darden on each song he chose:

1. “Movin’ on Up (A Little Higher)” – Mahalia Jackson

“The queen of gospel’s first big hit and one of the best-selling gospel songs of all time.”

2. “Take My Hand, Precious Lord” – Thomas Dorsey

“Perhaps the best-known, most beloved of all gospel songs. Written by Thomas Dorsey after the loss of his wife and infant child, it is still sung today at African-American funeral services in the country.”

3. “Oh Happy Day” – Edwin Hawkins

“The first gospel song to be a hit single in the 1960s and a revolutionary combination of gospel choir and modern beat.”

4. “The Reason Why We Sing” – Kirk Franklin

“Kirk Franklin did to the ‘80s and ‘90s what Hawkins did to the ‘60s (and Andrae Crouch did to the ‘70s) – combined straight-ahead gospel with the beat of the day.”

5. “People Get Ready” – Curtis Mayfield  

“This tune by Curtis Mayfield is not really a gospel song, but it was so compelling that it was adopted by both the Civil Rights Movement and the African church. There are a number of great versions, including the Chambers Brothers, the Blind Boys of Alabama and even Rod Stewart.”

6. “We Shall Overcome”

“This is the ‘signature’ song of the Civil Rights Movement, an adaptation of an old gospel tune that has been honed by the fire and blood of a thousand movement events and is still sung by oppressed people around the world.”

7. “Peace Be Still” – The Rev. James Cleveland and the First Baptist Church of Nutley, NJ

“This is the song and the arrangement that made young black people want to join mass choirs and sing.”

8. “How I Got Over” – Clara Ward and the Ward Singers

“The best-known song by the Wards, who were second only to Mahalia Jackson in popularity for nearly 30 years.”

9. “Touch the Hem of His Garment” – The Soul Stirrers, featuring Sam Cooke

“The Soul Stirrers helped invent the hard-charging gospel quartet sound. The popularity of this song help convinced Cooke (the writer and featured singing) to launch a mainstream performing career.”

10. “Mary, Don’t You Weep” – The Caravans, featuring Inez Andrews

“The great old spirituals often make great gospel songs. This is one of my personal favorites.”

These selections give a glimpse into some of the music that has shaped our country. Hopefully it sparked an interest in you to dig deeper and listen to America’s roots. 

Photo Credit: Michaela Schirra