Published on July 9th, 2020 | by Nina Pulley
Gospel in the West: Gwendolyn Cooper Lightner and the Chicago “Bounce”
Last summer, I wrote a feature on four women in gospel music who shaped the genre’s sound. The primary document I drew from was Robert Marovich’s A City Called Heaven: Chicago and the Birth of Gospel Music. I didn’t quite know what to make of it, but the more I explored, the more I learned about the bedrock of musical culture laying at the bottom of African American and, of course, all American music. It’s gospel music.
In my research, I attempted to paint portraits of women who surrounded the young and emergent Mahalia Jackson in her beauty shop and apartment in a 1940s Chicago, spreading gospel music in its nascent stages across the United States. Although niche, their stories – like most – contain lessons we can learn from, especially in these times that can often cause historical amnesia.
Gospel music disseminated a style and format so fundamental to what we expect to hear when we listen to music that it makes sense to put faces and names to the sounds and sensations we know so well but often take for granted. It was pretty early ‒ in the thirties and early forties ‒ that this sound moved from its midwestern origin out to California, earlier than I expected. A few key players were responsible for this: in the early 1940s, Mahalia Jackson was surrounded by an entourage, if you will, of talented musicians who in mundanely attending church every Sunday were carving out the extraordinary and continuously vibrant gospel sound.
This church environment was lively, electrifying even. People routinely fell out into the aisles. Young women and men, too, would faint, hand fans and steadying arms at the ready. Stomping and shuffling resembling ring shouts of the past erupted in the pews, with grandmothers’ sinewed hands grasping at their wooden backs for support.
This tradition’s epicenter was in Chicago, which, while large, had African-American communities concentrated in smaller neighborhoods, most of which were on the South side. Some people, apprehending the over saturation of a market and cognizant of the need to make a living, decided to take their gifts and talents to California. A woman by the name of Gwendolyn Cooper Lightner, a gifted young pianist who studied under gospel music proselytizers like Emma Jackson and Thomas Dorsey, widely considered to be the father of gospel music, was asked by a pastor taking over a church to move out to Los Angeles after rising to notability.
After some research, it became apparent that the gospel sound in the West is really contained in Los Angeles, with smaller and less noteworthy congregations dotted across the region. Due to migration patterns of Black people, Los Angeles, a large metropolitan center, is where the gospel music sound stayed. Due to these calculated moves by Black people situated in Chicago, gospel evolved from the lush, rich sounds of largely Southern-born spirituals and found an additional home in the city of angels. It bears mentioning that Gwendolyn Cooper Lightner was a major factor in this. As written in the post,
Cooper Lightner moved from Chicago to Los Angeles at a high point in her career, bringing the sound and the musical traditions of the city with her. According to Jacqueline Cogdell DjeDje, an ethnomusicologist at UCLA since 1979, Cooper Lightner brought the “oomph” to gospel in the West. Cooper Lightner gave a lecture at UCLA in the Ethnomusicology department on Gospel in LA in 1989, and it’s still available in the department’s online archives.
It was in 1946 that Reverend John L. Branham, formerly of Chicago, took over the pastorship of St. Paul’s Baptist Church in Los Angeles, and enlisted Lightner and Hines to lead up the musical affairs of the congregation. Lightner then became the choir’s co-director, and began playing spirited piano accompaniments to performances, ones that had a “bounce” to them, according to Dr. DjeDje. Under the leadership of Professor James Earle Hines, not to be confused with the other famous musician “Fatha” Earl Hines, the membership grew, despite the mostly White congregation’s initial misgivings and general misunderstandings about the increased vigor of the music compared to its traditional and puritanical counterparts, earning it a reputation of being more secular-sounding. Despite this, Hines and Lightner created Echoes of Eden, whose membership surpassed one-hundred, and the choir went on to record songs and be broadcast on radio throughout seventeen different states. Through their efforts, St. Paul’s began reverberating with a sound previously only associated with the midwest and south. The introduction of this sound was pivotal to the development of the gospel music format in the West.
Together, both Lightner and Hines began to instruct the existing congregation on the sounds of Chicago that Lightner came to embody, and began raising up generations of gospel musicians who followed suit in the sounds of African American musical traditions extending from the enslavement era not too long past.
Less about the migration of a genre, this is more a story about Gwendolyn Cooper Lightner, and how she, after her myriad successes in Chicago, was enlisted to move out to Los Angeles and begin to make a mark there. In the first few years this occurred, with gospel music still, according to Lightner, “in its young stages at the time,” the spirited, arguably more secular sound that began to characterize the music was being established concurrently with the scene in Chicago, and further east as well, to a lesser extent.
This story is not well-documented, as gospel music is more often seen, heard, and felt, rather than written about in books. So much of gospel history remains shrouded to us, hidden behind layers of varying perspectives and interpretations. However, the present can often yield much more than history ever could, and can even reveal aspects of years past that would go untold and misunderstood without a contemporary counterpart. So, what does gospel in California look like today? Who is there now making changes and waves in the culture? With pop music and Hollywood being the epicenter of the city, what does gospel look like there today? What are megachurches, gospel artists, and musicians in Los Angeles working towards? Check in for part two of this series, focusing on the present and future of gospel music in the West.
- Robert Marovich, A City Called Heaven: Chicago and the Birth of Gospel Music (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2015).
- W. K. McNeil, Encyclopedia of American Gospel Music (New York: Routledge, Taylor & Francis Group, 2005), pp. 233-235.
- Nina Pulley, “4 Inspiring Women Who Were Gospel’s First Sounds,” AURN Inspirational (American Urban Radio Networks, July 2, 2019), http://aurninspirational.com/4-inspiring-women-who-were-gospels-first-sounds/.
- Jon Thurber, “Obituary: Gwendolyn Lightner; Choir Director Gave Gospel Music on West Coast a Modern Beat,” Los Angeles Times (Los Angeles Times, September 6, 1999), https://www.latimes.com/archives/la-xpm-1999-sep-06-mn-7389-story.html.
- Nina Pulley, “4 Inspiring Women Who Were Gospel’s First Sounds.”
- John Thurber, “Obituary: Gwendolyn Lightner; Choir Director Gave Gospel Music on West Coast a Modern Beat.”
- Jacqueline Cogdell DjeDje and Eddie S. Meadows, California Soul: Music of African Americans in the West (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1998), 133.
- Gwendolyn Cooper Lightner, “Gospel in Los Angeles,” March 2, 1989, UCLA, 1 tape of ½ inch videotape, 1 hour 50 minutes 32 seconds, available on Internet Archive at https://archive.org/details/calauem_000060, uploaded by Dr. Jacqueline Cogdell DjeDje from the UCLA Ethnomusicology Archive.
- Hawn, C. Michael. 2020. “History of Hymns: ‘We’ve Come This Far by Faith’.” Discipleship Ministries. Discipleship Ministries. February 20, 2020. https://www.umcdiscipleship.org/articles/history-of-hymns-weve-come-this-far-by-faith.
- Michael Saffle, Perspectives on American Music, 1900-1950 (New York: Routledge, Taylor & Francis Group, 2000), 183-91.
- Mark Burford, Mahalia Jackson and the Black Gospel Field (New York: Oxford University Press) 111, 208, 392, 408.
- Djedje, Jacqueline Cogdell. 1993. “Los Angeles Composers of African American Gospel Music: The First Generations.” American Music 11 (4): 412–57. https://doi.org/10.2307/3052539.
- Djedje, Jacqueline Cogdell. 1986. “Change and Differentiation: The Adoption of Black American Gospel Music in the Catholic Church.” Ethnomusicology, 30 (2): 223-52.
- Djedje, Jacqueline Cogdell. 1989. “Gospel Music in the Los Angeles Black Community: A Historical Overview.” Black Music Research Journal, 9 (1): 35-79.