Q&A with Gospel music historian Robert M. Marovich, founder & editor-in-chief of the Journal of Gospel Music

"Gospel is most certainly an identifier for a specific genre of music with specific stylistic differences, but you could say it’s also a state of mind. More than any other kind of music, gospel music contains the answers to life’s problems—if someone chooses to listen."

Bob Marovich: The Enlighten of Gospel

Robert M. Marovich is the founder and Editor-in-Chief of the Journal of Gospel Music. The mission of the Journal of Gospel Music is to educate and enlighten the public about gospel music as an American art form. Its vision is to be the premier online resource for gospel music news, reviews, and scholarship. Bob Marovich launched JGM on the tenth anniversary of its predecessor website, The Black Gospel Blog, which he founded July 28, 2004, as the first blog to cover African American gospel music. Bob Marovich is a gospel music historian, author, and radio host. Since 2001, he has produced “Gospel Memories.” The show features classic gospel, spiritual, and jubilee music, and interviews with gospel legends.  It airs Saturday mornings on Chicago’s WLUW-FM and throughout the week on several Internet and low-power FM radio stations throughout the U.S., Canada, and Europe.           (Photo: Robert M. Marovich, Rhythm of Gospel Award 2018)

Bob has written about and reviewed classic and contemporary gospel music since the mid-1990s, when he was the gospel editor for bluesweb.com.  He founded The Black Gospel Blog in July 2004. The Black Gospel Blog was nominated for a Rhythm of Gospel Award in 2013 and became the Journal of Gospel Music in July 2014.  Bob has been interviewed about gospel for television, radio, and newspapers, and was featured on a BBC Radio 2 documentary on the life of Sister Rosetta Tharpe. He is the gospel editor for ChicagoMusic.org. Bob’s collection of historic gospel recordings exceeds 5,000 vinyl discs that contain more than 19,000 individual tracks, and thousands of gospel CDs. His collection of gospel music memorabilia includes sheet music, song folios, photographs, signatures, anniversary programs, tickets, posters, and other promotional material.

Interview by Michael Limnios

How has the Gospel music influenced your views of the world and the journeys you’ve taken?

For me, gospel music is the most important medium for finding my spirituality. More than any organized religion, gospel songs and their messages provide me with the encouragement I need to face life’s challenges. Learning about the origins of gospel music has given me an even richer understanding of, and appreciation for, the role of music in restoring the human spirit. It is the most expressive style of music I know.

What do you learn about yourself from the Gospel music, people and culture? What does "Gospel" mean to you?

I have learned that I have many things in common with many gospel singers. First, we are creative people but, more importantly, we grew up in families of modest means and had a great desire, from an early age, to do something important with our lives. And since 2003, when I got more involved in the industry side of things, I have learned how welcoming the gospel community is to those who genuinely love the Lord.

For me, gospel music is African American sacred folk music that pairs religious messages with the predominant African American popular music. In Professor Thomas A. Dorsey’s day, popular music was blues and jazz. Then it was swing, and later, small combo R&B and modern jazz. Today, it’s urban adult contemporary and hip hop. So when someone asks me what gospel music will sound like in the future, I tell them: “Listen to where black popular music is going—that’s what it will sound like.”

"They all come from the same source: West Africa. There, all music was sacred, all music was secular. The late ethnomusicologist Pearl Williams-Jones taught us in 1975 that gospel music has retained more Africanisms than any other form of black music." (Photo: Bob Marovich, Willie Rogers, Otis Clay, Roscoe Robinson. Merrillville, IN, August 2015 – Blind Social Center Gala)

What were the reasons that you started the JGM? How do you describe your mission and what is the hardest part of?

I started the Journal of Gospel Music in 2004 as The Black Gospel Blog. I created it for three reasons. First, to keep writing about gospel music. Back in the late 1990s, I wrote about gospel music for a website called BluesWEB, but when the site shut down in the early 2000s, I needed to find a new platform.

Second, I did it to start the first gospel music blog. When BluesWEB closed, my wife suggested I create my own blog to continue writing about gospel. I looked to see if “black gospel blog” had been taken in the blogosphere and, not finding it, I started my own.

Third, I did it to help new artists. When I joined the Chicago Gospel Announcers Guild, I met gospel artists who wanted me to program their new CDs on my radio show. However, my radio show focuses on the golden oldies and not on today’s gospel. Not wanting to let anyone down, I began reviewing their projects on my new blog. It grew from there.

Which acquaintances have been the most important experiences? What was the best advice anyone ever gave you?

The most important acquaintances for me have been Deacon Dennis Cole of the Chicago Gospel Announcers Guild, all of the folks at Malaco Music Group, and Opal Nations, who suggested to Malaco that I help write the artist bios for their website.

The best advice I received was from Elder Mack C. Mason. In 2003, he encouraged me, at that time a relatively new radio announcer, to join the Gospel Announcers Guild of the Gospel Music Workshop of America. From there, I met Deacon Cole, Chicago GAG president, who has always been an ardent supporter of my work. I was the chapter’s second vice president in the mid-2000s. Most all of my connections in gospel music today come from being part of the GAG for so many years.

"I would go to Chicago’s Pilgrim Baptist Church on December 31, 1939, to the Watch Night program, that featured the Wings over Jordan Choir as well as presentations by “new” gospel stars Thomas A. Dorsey, Sallie Martin, and Roberta Martin. To hear these artists at the beginning of their careers, along with the original Wings over Jordan, would be a blessing!"

(Photo: Bob Marovich)

What do you miss most nowadays from the Gospel of the past? What are your hopes and fears for the future of?

I miss that punch in the gut that traditional gospel gives you. The 12/8 “rocking chair” tempo, the organ, the piano, the passionate singers who can really sell a gospel song. The message that lifts people up out of depression and despair. To me, Praise & Worship music, while valuable in its own right, doesn’t offer that restorative “punch in the gut.” Also, P&W contains fewer of the elements that distinguish African American gospel music from other forms. It doesn’t have as many “Africanisms,” or stylistic techniques, that survived the Middle Passage. If gospel ever loses those distinguishing characteristics altogether, it has essentially become untethered from its West African roots. That would be a very sad day.

What are the lines that connect the legacy of Afro-American music from Gospel and Blues, to Jazz, Folk, and beyond?

They all come from the same source: West Africa. There, all music was sacred, all music was secular. The late ethnomusicologist Pearl Williams-Jones taught us in 1975 that gospel music has retained more Africanisms than any other form of black music. The repetition of lyric lines, the hand clapping and foot patting, holy dancing, falsetto singing, polyrhythms—all of that survived the Middle Passage. We have given names to different styles of African American music for marketing and promotion purposes, but if you think about it, there are jazz compositions that are spiritual in nature. There are folk songs that have a religious context. It ultimately comes from the same source.

Do you consider the Gospel a specific music genre or do you think it’s a state of mind? How do you want it to affect people?

Gospel is most certainly an identifier for a specific genre of music with specific stylistic differences, but you could say it’s also a state of mind. More than any other kind of music, gospel music contains the answers to life’s problems—if someone chooses to listen. In blues, rock, or pop music, you might get an emotional high, but in gospel, you get an emotional high as well as a direction, a story or a suggestion that can help you overcome problems or challenges.

"For me, gospel music is the most important medium for finding my spirituality. More than any organized religion, gospel songs and their messages provide me with the encouragement I need to face life’s challenges. Learning about the origins of gospel music has given me an even richer understanding of, and appreciation for, the role of music in restoring the human spirit. It is the most expressive style of music I know." (Photo: Robert M. Marovich & Gospel legend, Delores Scott)

What is the impact of Gospel music and culture to the racial, political, spiritual, and socio-cultural implications?

This is a complicated question to answer. Most certainly, gospel music has had a profound impact on racial and spiritual issues. It is a very subtle form of protest music in that it speaks truth to power in the somewhat coded language of the church. Most importantly, it speaks to the resilience of African American people, as in “no weapon formed against me shall prosper.” Throughout all of history, tyrannical societies were toppled by a people’s resilience.

On the other hand, the social conservatism of many gospel singers has prevented the music from having the kind of direct impact on sociopolitical issues that it has the potential to make. And Praise and Worship music is too inward-looking. It serves the congregation but it doesn’t inspire or direct social protest outside church walls. When people march, they still turn to the spirituals for inspiration.

Let’s take a trip with a time machine, so where and why would you really want to go for a whole day?

I would go to Chicago’s Pilgrim Baptist Church on December 31, 1939, to the Watch Night program, that featured the Wings over Jordan Choir as well as presentations by “new” gospel stars Thomas A. Dorsey, Sallie Martin, and Roberta Martin. To hear these artists at the beginning of their careers, along with the original Wings over Jordan, would be a blessing!

Journal of Gospel Music - Home

Photo: Two of Bob Marovich's major projects

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