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      Gospel Traditions   Make Joyful Noise!
musical roots family music-making harmony instruments
  spiritual connections      
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Image of Members of Psalms as children with their Cedar Rapids church choirMusical Roots
Iowa is the home of various communities that have been shaped by their different religious traditions. Within these faith traditions are distinct styles of music, among them gospel, a Protestant style that uses melody, harmony, and rhythm with Christian religious lyrics to spread the lessons of the New Testament.

Image of Matney family bandAlthough traditional, popular, and classical rhythms, harmonies, and melodies from the British Isles and Western Africa influenced gospel music, it was the Southern Protestant United States that truly nurtured it - in small churches, camp meetings, and revivals. In African American gospel, the listener can easily detect the strains of early spirituals, jubilee songs, and blues as well as later urban and northern influences such as jazz, soul, Motown, rhythm and Image of Matney Sisters - Early yearsblues, and rap. While the Black and White styles have obviously affected each other, the latter tends to draw its influences more from Scotch-Irish hymns and the tight harmonies and higher pitched voices of early shape-note singing, old time, country, and blue grass.

Image of Psalms - Early yearsBoth styles attained widespread popularity in the 1930s, when did Thomas A. Dorsey, known as the father of gospel, coined the term "gospel music." As radio and records increasingly dominated popular entertainment, the groups that were once heard only by the faithful could now spread the word and the sound around the country. Once exclusively church and community-based music, gospel has become a popular American musical form.

Family Music-Making
Most families sing at least some songs together, from "Happy Birthday," lullabies, and silly songs to popular music, songs related to religion, and patriotic tunes. People sing at home or on car trips, sometimes making up their own Image of Harley Matney with guitarsongs, which become part of their family folklore and sometimes reach even further.

The Matney Sisters are a vocal quartet specializing in country and gospel music, much of it written by the sisters. Sisters Pam Ostapoff, Shelly Bell, Jaimee Nutt, and Chris Ramsey grew up in Sioux City, Iowa and have been singing together since they were children under the tutelage of their father, Harley Matney, who still accompanies them on harmonica and guitar. All but one of the group still live in the Siouxland area, where they gather to sing and perform. Their trademark is tight, a cappella (unaccompanied) harmony singing.

Image of PsalmsPsalms is a six-member, family-based, African-American gospel group from Cedar Rapids. They perform quartet-style (four-part harmony with a lead) as well as contemporary, spirituals, and hymns for family reunions, festivals, benefits and every week in church. Trained by director and keyboard player Ron Teague, the group includes
siblings Sandy Reed and Allen Bell, cousin Paul Tillman, close family
friend Michael Cole, and, until her untimely death in 2007, Sharilyn Bell (sister to Sandy and Allen).    TOP

Image of Mt. Olive Baptist Church Choir of Sioux CityHarmony
The earliest church music excluded instruments; the faithful took the injunction to "make a joyful noise unto the Lord" to mean voices only. Though both the Matney Sisters and Psalms do a mixture of a cappella and accompanied singing, the members of both groups sing different vocal parts to create a rich harmonic mixture.

Image of Clarence Williams and the Rising Sons of WaterlooIn traditional gospel, a lead singer lines out or sings the first line of the song and the group joins in to repeat that line, sometimes in unison but more commonly with voices on three to four parts. This style follows from a time when not every one could read words much less music and is known as "call and response" singing, a method also found in traditional slave and other work songs.    TOP

Image of Matney Sisters with father, Harley MatneyInstruments
Besides the human voice, gospel musicians use a variety of instruments to back-up the singing and made a bigger sound. Although the harmony enhancing qualities of piano, guitar, autoharp, bass, mandolin, and other stringed instruments are important, it is their rhythmic punctuation that probably is more important in gospel music. The addition of drums and drum sets further emphasizes the beat and thus the message of gospel, insistently drawing performers and audience alike into the heart of the music.    TOP

Spiritual Connections
Regardless of its entertainment value, the purpose of gospel music is to witness. It is a part and parcel of worship, though the venue is frequently nImage of J&J Community Choir, Prayer of Faith Church of God In Christ, West Des Moinesot a church. According to the members of Psalms, what is most important about their music, is to sing with feeling and understanding, to put the spiritual element and the life experience into their music. Family hardships and personal growth are all incorporated into the message, which emphasizes redemption and the promise of a reward in the hereafter.    TOP


Text by Riki Saltzman. Photos by Will Thomson, Riki Saltzman, and courtesy of the Matney Sisters and Psalms.

musical roots family music-making harmony instruments
  spiritual connections      
  lesson plans resources traditional artists  
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