Like the post above, this story — which ran originally in The Oregonian on Dec. 22, 1991 — is a tribute to the great gospel singer Willa Dorsey, who died in Portland on Jan. 5 at age 75. Above is my profile of Dorsey from 17 years ago. Here is its companion piece, about the role of gospel music in American art and culture, with more contributions from Dorsey. May she sing with the angels.
“O sing unto the Lord a new song, for He hath done marvelous things. With trumpets and sound of cornet make a joyful noise before the Lord, thy King.” — Psalm 98
“Why should the devil have all the good tunes?” — John Wesley (1703-1791), founder of Methodism
Like a great river rolling underground, American gospel music is a fount of life bubbling just below public consciousness. Maybe you don’t know it’s there. But it’s been nourishing you all your life.
Born in the churches and nurtured as a celebration and protection against emotional harm, black gospel music has watered an astonishing amount of the country’s popular music — blues, jazz, rhythm and blues, street corner do-wop, rock ‘n’ roll, soul, even contemporary pop by the likes of Prince and Michael Jackson.
As Christmas approaches, Americans are caught up in other countries’ musical traditions: carols from England; high-church music from Germany and Italy; “Nutcracker” fantasies courtesy of a melodic, grandfatherly 19th-century Russian.
But there is also a sound of celebration much closer to the native grain: as close as the doors to such North and Northeast Portland churches as Maranatha and Mt. Olivet Baptist. In those vibrant congregations and others like them, the flame of a peculiarly American tradition is kept enthusiastically alive.