The Heritage of African American Songs: An interview with James Abbington

James Abbington, known affectionately as “Jimmie” to his many friends, is a an amazingly versatile musician/scholar who is committed to the study and practice of worship music from the African American heritage. He is equally at home playing the piano, Hammond organ, or pipe organ; directing a choir; directing a conference; or composing, writing, and editing books and music on aspects of African American church music (see box). We spoke with him during a break at the Hymn Society Conference in Halifax, Nova Scotia, last summer; he was also a featured presenter at the 2004 Calvin Symposium on Worship and the Arts.


RW: Tell us about your development as a church musician in Black churches and colleges.

JA: I was born and raised in Gary, West Virginia, a little coal-mining town of 3,000, but a community that had very high standards for worship and music. When I was about five, my mother started showing me I, IV, V progressions in all the major keys. My ear developed a lot faster than my reading skills. Being in the Pentecostal church and keeping up with all the latest songs, I lost interest in the printed page for a while. But in that little town everybody took piano. It was just amazing.

Probably the greatest model in my life was the late Dr. Wendall Phillips Wayland from Morehouse College. I started college at West Virginia State, where I was doing more playing than studying. When he came to do a workshop he said to me, “You know, you can go through college or college can go through you. You can be here for four years, play everywhere, become popular, make money, and hopefully graduate, but at best be an average musician with limited possibilities.” A semester later I transferred to Morehouse College in Atlanta. There I started to mature musically and develop a passion for the organ.

Wayland was a great organist, conductor, teacher, and champion of high quality music and worship in the church. He taught me about Black music history and he insisted on using the Christian year. I remember being fascinated by that, because this is just not something the Baptists or the Pentecostals were doing. It made so much sense to me. Ever since, I’ve used the Christian year as the focus for musical selections.

At that time I was the organist at West Hunter Street Baptist Church,pastored by the late Ralph David Abernathy, as well as the associateorganist and choir director at the Ebenezer Baptist Church, formerlypastored by Martin Luther King, Jr. As a matter of fact, his father wasstill alive when I was there. I’ll never forget when they announced oneSunday that I was leaving Atlanta to study at the University ofMichigan. After the service Daddy King came up to me and said, “Where’sthe church going to find someone to play?” I said, “Surely they’ll findsomeone.” And Daddy King said, “Well, son, I’m gonna tell you twothings I want you to remember. My son Martin loved that song ‘If I canhelp somebody, my living will not be in vain.’” He said, “Youunderstand that even Martin knew he couldn’t help everybody, not evenin this church, but in life you learn to help somebody and lift back tograb someone else as you go. Don’t ever forget that.” Daddy King wasalso afraid my going away would remove me from our heritage, our roots.He didn’t want that to happen. He said, “While you’re learning allabout Beethoven and Bach, whatever you do, don’t you ever forget how toplay ‘Amazing Grace’ like we sing it.” He asked me to play it for himright there, and I did. And then he walked on out of the sanctuary.

I started my masters in 1983 at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, and also become the organist, choir director, and lay minister of music at Hartford Memorial Baptist Church in Detroit with the Reverend Dr. Charles Adams. He was a masterful preacher and musician as well. The church included the titles of all the music played and sung every Sunday, listing the composers too. Those choices were always guided by the Christian year. Hartford Memorial was probably the most liturgical, Baptist Pentecostal Episcopal church in the country!

Dr. Adams had gone to Harvard, and since I was an avid reader and enjoyed his masterful preaching, we had good discussions. He realized Michigan was a fine music school, but that I needed to be exposed to biblical, theological, and pastoral issues. Out of his own resources, Dr. Adams arranged to send me annually to Harvard to do some independent study in theology and issues of diversity in worship. That, for me, was an essential component that was missing from my education at Michigan. Too often musicians are trained in a vacuum and ministers are trained in a vacuum, and somehow we never study the relationship of working together in worship!

RW: How would you describe the importance of the African American spiritual in terms of worship today?

JA: The literature that has been most significant in the life of the African American church is the spiritual.Unfortunately, it is probably the most neglected part of our heritage. In terms of indigenous African American music, the message, the historical struggles, the understanding of the Bible—all these are hidden in spirituals. We need to return to spirituals as congregational music.

The spiritual has been preserved in concert arrangements by Harry T. Burleigh, William Dawson, Paul Johnson, Undine Smith, and the late Moses Hogan. But that’s choral, not congregational music. In some sense it’s Europeanized. In many cases, it is no longer participatory music. The spiritual functioned within the community as a commentary sung by all God’s children, testifying how the Gospel story is our story. Through the spiritual we confront social issues in the world. I am not hearing that in contemporary gospel music.

“You understand that even Martin knew he couldn’t help everybody, not even in this church, but in life you learn to help somebody and lift back to grab someone else as you go. Don’t ever forget that.”

RW: How would you relate the “praise & worship” music that’s so popular today to the African American spiritual and gospel tradition?

JA: The praise and worship phenomenon is alive and well in the black church too. What people call “praise & worship” now is just what we always did in the early black religious experience! The Pentecostal Holiness experience certainly didn’t need a band or a team of singers with mikes to encourage the people to praise God. Someone just started singing and we picked it up.

But now that phenomenon has come to the Black church. At first Pentecostal congregations asked, “What’s the big deal with this?” But now many of those churches have followed the culture, because they think if you don’t have a worship team then you’re not relevant.

RW: How significant are hymns in the African American tradition?

JA: In Let Mount Zion Rejoice I did a study of the hymns that are most frequently used in African American churches. The total list was long, but we discovered there were only twenty, maybe twenty-five hymns most commonly sung.

It’s important to note that many hymns that found their way into African American churches were not written by African Americans. Try to convince an African American that Fanny Crosby, who wrote “Pass Me Not, O Gentle Savior” or “Blessed Assurance” or “Jesus, Keep Me Near the Cross,” is not Black. Those hymns were adopted because they related to the experience of African Americans.

The list of hymns by African American composers is very short after you name Charles Albert Tindley, the father of African American hymnody, Thomas A. Dorsey, and Doris Akers. But there are recent liturgical hymnals with titles named after well-known songs by African American hymn writers: Lead Me, Guide Me (Catholic) is named after a hymn by Doris Akers. Lift Every Voice and Sing! (Episcopal) is named after a song by James Weldon Johnson and his brother James Rosemont. And the Lutheran collection This Far by Faith comes from an Albert Goodson hymn.

The African American Heritage Hymnal (AAHH) provides all churches, not only African American, with a tremendous wealth of diverse hymnody that we hope will help bring a revival of hymn singing.

RW: Some of the songs in AAHH are described as “congregational praise songs.” Is that a different genre? How is it different from praise & worship or from gospel?

JA: Yes, there is a body of African American worship songs that Walker calls “prayer and praise hymns.” These are congregational praise hymns that come out of the sanctified tradition. Examples in AAHH include “Oh, What He’s Done For Me” and “He’s Done So Much for Me.” Many of these are still used. GIA Music just published a wonderful collection of twenty-four pieces called Spirits That Dwell in Deep Woods, the culmination of a project Wyatt T. Walker started in 1987. A lot of the Southerners who are part of his congregation in Harlem brought their songs up north; he had his musicians notate these songs, and he added notes, giving a Biblical basis, theological moorings, and contemporary relevance of these prayer or praise hymns.

These songs have their origins in Wednesday night prayer meetings, or Sunday night worship. Definitely the body of music that is most neglected in the research of African American church music is the sanctified holiness church music. A lot of songs came out of that movement. One example, perfect for Advent and the Second Coming, is “Where Shall I Be?” (“When judgment day is drawing nigh, where shall I be?”)

RW: How would you evaluate the strength of the gospel song tradition for worship today?

JA: Right now popular culture seems to place its emphasis on gospel music and gospel artists. Gospel music offers opportunities for stardom and for entertainment, and, as A. W. Tozer once said, the church that has not been taught to worship must be entertained. The church today has an overabundance of gospel music that most scholars would agree has been influenced by commercialization. The Grammys now have a gospel category. However, I must also add that many composers are truly writing for the church: Margaret Pleasant Douroux, V. Michael McKay, Glenn Burleigh, and others.

In a nutshell, gospel developed from sort of a secular urban phenomenon that was influenced by ragtime, jazz, and blues. Already that was problematic for the church because it was just not the sacred thing to do. Gospel music today does not include enough about what was going on in the Pentecostal holiness movement from the days of C.P. Jones, and the whole Azusa Street experience. Before 1910 they were already using instruments and clapping their hands. They believed in every bit of Psalm 150!

We tend to associate the beginning of black gospel music with Thomas Dorsey, and we never really explore the earlier influences. It wasn’t until the sixties or the seventies, with the rise of the civil rights movement, black nationalism, and black identity, that black gospel really became popular. Of course, the commercialization of “Oh, Happy Day” by Edwin Hopkins in ’68-’69 put gospel in a larger arena outside of the church.

Edwin Hopkins and Andrae Crouch grew up in the Church of God in Christ. Many of those gospel stars are now pastors of churches—Andrae Crouch is and so is Marvin Winans. Although they dominated gospel music from the ’70s to the ’90s, they now have different insights as pastors about music and worship in their churches.

The annual Gospel Music Workshop of America (GMYA) is the greatest of many workshops and conventions that strengthen the performance practices and repertoire of gospel music. The conference was founded by the late Reverend James Cleveland, another Grammy Award-winning recording artist who was a pastor in Los Angeles. There are conventions within the convention with special interest sessions on traditional gospel music, how to become a gospel artist, praise & worship, conducting, voice, arranging, piano, to name just a few. So, under this one marquee you have twenty different strands of interest. It’s a twenty-four hour convention. There is no such thing as rest.

RW: How have you addressed worship issues in your writing?

JA: Waiting to Go and its sequel Going to Wait are an attempt to bring African American churches into an understanding of the Christian year. My responsibility was to select hymns, to recommend spirituals that would be appropriate for the day, to recommend anthems and gospel selections, and, of course, organ music for people who are organists.

The African American Hymn Series (GIA) includes pieces that can be sung by anyone, not just African Americans. It was never intended to be a series exclusively for African Americans, but all the composers are African American. Nathan Carter’s arrangement of “Great Is Thy Faithfulness” has probably sold ten thousand copies. That and other arrangements, like “It Is Well with My Soul,” are wonderful arrangements of hymns by non-African Americans. This is not “our” music; it is music for the whole church.

RW: Overall, are you optimistic or are you concerned about the future of worship music from the African American heritage?

JA: I am both optimistic and concerned. I am very concerned when I can’t find church music programs that are producing students to meet the ever-growing needs of the churches. I am concerned to hear complaints about highly skilled organists who know the literature but can’t effectively play hymns and don’t know the theology and history of the church’s tradition. I am concerned that African American students are not interested in piano and organ at the college and university level. I am concerned about who will teach music and worship. I am concerned that church and academic leaders are not sufficiently mentoring musicians for work in the church.

There are some academic approaches to the way African American music needs to be performed and led; Horace Boyers and Glenn Burleigh are great musicians and teachers. I am optimistic when I consider these and many other churches and musicians that are perpetuating the best in music and worship. I am optimistic aobut the well-trained, dedicated, competent, and committed Chrisitan musicians who are preserving our heritage, perparing for our future, and not allowing the world to dictate their style, standards, and substance. I am optimistic as I review the outstanding compositions of many contemporary composers and arrangers. I am optimistic as I consider, at least, two great annual conferences that gather African American pastors and musicians: the Hampton Ministers and Musicians Conference in June and the Gospel Music Workshop of America that takes place every second week of August. These conferences are committed to excellence in music and worship and are led by the nation’s leading musicians, scholars, theologians, and professors. Unfortunately, there are very few sessions in which ministers and musicians come together for dialog and discussion.

We must identify young gifted students and provide adequate scholarships for them at institutions able to give them the education they need to function in our churches. There is an urgent need for scholars and teachers to research, preserve, and perpetuate our diverse musical heritage. We need serious gatherings of theologians, musicians, pastors, and worship leaders who are willing to wrestle with issues, develop strategies for growth and development, and implement change where necessary. What we need is some kind of symposium that regularly brings 25-50 handpicked folks from around the country together for weeklong, intense discussions on music in the African American church, with a theology component and with advance readings. And these folks can work with those that understand performance practices and worship and how to teach music that you can take back to your church.

I go back to Daddy King’s statement, that you can’t help everybody, but if you can help somebody, as you pass along, your living will not be in vain. We might not get many people, but it’s the quality of instruction that counts. If you had twenty-five musicians that came out of such a study conference, look at what kind of impact that could have. You almost want to go nationally and pick those people from the larger cities, where you will plant that person back. Because trust me, if you plant, they’ll blossom.

Waiting to Go and its sequel Going to Wait are an attempt to bring African American churches into an under-standing of the Christian year.



James Abbington is a professor of music at Morgan State University, Baltimore, Maryland. He is also author, editor, and contributor to a growing number of resources on African American worship and song:

  • Let Mount Zion Rejoice: Music in the African American Church
    (Judson Press, 2001), author
  • African American Heritage Hymnal
    (GIA Publications, 2001), associate editor
  • Readings in African American Church Music and Worship
    (GIA Publications, 2001), editor
  • Waiting to Go: African American Church Resources from Advent and Pentecost (GIA Publications, 2002), coauthor
  • Going to Wait: African American Church Resources Between Advent and Pentecost
    (GIA Publications, 2003), coauthor
  • Spirits That Dwell in Deep Woods: The Prayer and Praise Hymns of Black Religious Experience (GIA Publications, 2003), editor
  • African American Sacred Music Series (GIA Publications, 2003), executive editor

James Abbington ( is a professor of music at Morgan State University and has written extensively on African-American music (see RW 72, p. 32)


Reformed Worship 72 © June 2004 Worship Ministries of the Christian Reformed Church. Used by permission.