Gospel music is inextricably linked with the religious experience of African Americans and tied to aspects of slavery such as spirituals and work songs. It has a strong legacy in black music. Name any soul singer and the chance is they started singing gospel, from Sam Cooke to Aretha Franklin and Whitney Houston.
But the face of gospel music is changing. In 2014 the Songs of Praise Gospel Choir of the Year contest was won by a choir from Lewes in East Sussex that only had two black members, and this year the competition sees the predominantly-white Godalming Community Gospel Choir competing in the final.
Godalming is a desirable market town nestled in the leafy Surrey commuter belt, which is probably most famous for being the first town in the world to install a public electricity supply. It’s a long way from the world of African slaves working in the cotton fields of the Deep South. So how did a gospel choir from Godalming get to be one of the best in the UK?
According to founder Emma-Sue Prince it hasn’t been the easiest journey, “When we first started out and we went to perform, I remember thinking “Oh my god, this is dreadful’, I want a gospel choir and they don’t get what gospel is and it’s not working. I would say 98 per cent of them knew nothing about gospel music.”
Obviously things have changed quite a bit since those early days, as Emma-Sue proudly states: “We have developed an amazing choir and getting into the final of this competition is testament to that.”
She had first got involved in gospel music when she lived in London, after her singer sister had remarked that the best way to learn about singing was by being part of a gospel choir. At first she was sceptical that a non-churchgoer as herself could be in a choir, but after a bit of sisterly coercion she went to a workshop and was won over: “I rediscovered a joy of singing that hadn’t been expressed. And I just fell in love with it.”
That love spread and soon Emma-Sue had helped set up a gospel choir. But then came a move to Godalming, “which was a bit of a culture shock” after living in east London. The love of gospel remained yet trying to find a choir in Surrey proved impossible, but Emma-Sue knew what to do: “I desperately wanted to sing in a gospel choir again and the only way I was going to do that was to set one up.”
She also had a clear vision of what she wanted for her choir: to be community-based, open to anybody; people of faith, non-faith, non-auditioned and affordable. She also had a clear idea of the gospel music that she wanted: “People in Surrey would assume that gospel music is church music, praise and worship music – which obviously it has got a Christian theme – but there’s such a range of gospel music out there and I just want to show off all there is.”
Surely establishing Godalming as a hotbed of gospel music would be no easy task? Emma-Sue was pleasantly surprised when she first held rehearsals, “I had 25-odd people who said that they were interested. I said to my husband I’d be over the moon if I got 20. When I turned up there were 70.”
The vision was always to have a choir of 100 people or more, something which has now been achieved with members from every sort of background; unemployed and wealthy, from the age of 15 to 80, and even with a couple of hearing-impaired singers. Emma-Sue claims, “People mix in the choir who probably wouldn’t have anything much to do with each other, but because we have this love of gospel music it works.”
Now the choir performs prolifically, at least once month, in contrast to most non-auditioned community choirs that normally may only perform three times a year, putting on shows that only friends and families attend. Emma-Sue is proud of how everyone in the choir has developed from those early, “dreadful” days: “Yes, we’re a community choir, but our concerts are packed. We really strive for excellence.”
Yet she is also aware there are some limitations within the choir: “Gospel is very spontaneous and there’s lots and lots of movement, and as English people we’re not always comfortable moving our bodies, expressing the music through our bodies.”
Which conversely helps decide the diverse range of music that the choir sings, as Emma-Sue explains in relation to the Gospel Choir of the Year contest:
“We wanted to reflect what we do, because we do play demanding music. What we were particularly aware of was that if you are a church-based gospel choir from Hackney with lots of black people and you sing [gospel standard] This Little Light of Mine, you are going to be amazing because your have that rhythm and that movement. But we as a community choir from Surrey, if we were to do that, people would think ‘Isn’t that nice.'”
Emma-Sue is a very driven person, alongside running the choir voluntarily, she also runs her own business and has a young family. She greatly appreciates the community aspect of the choir, and the positive mental and physical benefits of singing in general, but why gospel music in particular?
“I personally think that gospel singing taps into the spiritual dimension that is within everyone, because it’s your voice exposed and you’re singing these very powerful words. I don’t think it matters what you believe in, I wasn’t a churchgoer when I started singing gospel, but it just did something for me.”
So why should you join a gospel choir? “Hearing your own voice, hearing yourself sing is something very, very positive. And join a gospel choir because it gives to you on every level: mentally, emotionally, spiritually, physically.”