Img. 1: The Pace Jubilee Singers, ca. 1930, with Charles H. Pace in the back row on the far left.
Gospel music became a hit after the Second World War. Mahalia Jackson, the Soul Stirrers, and the Staple Singers made Black church singing known to new audiences. Their success built on the quiet work of Black composers and publishers. From the 1920s and 1930s on, publishing helped gospel grow into national visibility and commercial success.
After the end of the Civil War in 1865, Black musicians experienced new freedoms. More Black musicians were free to create new types of music in the theater, concert hall, church, and street. Many Black composers published sentimental and comic songs, ragtime music, blues, jazz, classical music, and music for vocal quartets. White-owned companies printed and distributed paper copies of their songs.
But white publishers had little interest in Black church music. Black church composers had few opportunities to earn money from their music. On their own, more and more Black composers of sacred music began to publish and distribute their music themselves in the 1920s.
In the 1920s, two Black-owned companies began publishing gospel music in Chicago. Lillian M. Bowles owned the Bowles Music House. Charles Henry Pace worked there as an arranger, preparing songs for printing. Pace also owned his own publishing company, known as Pace Music House. Through these two companies, Pace distributed some of the first pieces of gospel music. He composed many of them himself. Pace also directed church choirs and founded the Pace Jubilee Singers. This singing group made some of the first recordings and radio performances of gospel music.
In 1934, Pace and his future spouse, Frankie, started a new publishing company, which they called the Old Ship of Zion. When they moved to Pittsburgh in 1936, they established the company and a music store in the Hill District, which was a nationally recognized center of Black arts and culture.
White church composers could send their manuscripts to publishing firms where different workers performed each step of the printing process. Because white publishers were not interested in gospel, Black gospel composers did everything on their own. Pace not only composed and arranged his own songs but also completed each step of the publication process.
To make covers for the printed songs, he drew from a collection of images and logos, taping them together on a page in a collage. He wrote the music by hand and with stencils. When he completed a page, he took a negative photograph of it. He would then use these negatives to make printing plates.
Pace made the plates by placing a negative photograph on a flat piece of metal. He shone a light through the negative. Where the light went through the clear areas of the negative, the metal would harden. Pace washed away the softer metal with chemicals. This process created a printing plate with raised images, text, and musical notes. Using a printing press, Pace could quickly print thousands of pages from this plate.
Pace knew a musician named Thomas A. Dorsey, who was then most famous for his work as a blues pianist with legendary singer Gertrude “Ma” Rainey. Pace hired Dorsey to play the piano for the Pace Jubilee Singers. He helped Dorsey transition into sacred music by publishing his first gospel songs. Dorsey left Pace’s employment quickly, but he stuck with gospel.
Dorsey led others to recognize that this music was important. In 1932, Dorsey helped found the National Convention of Gospel Choirs and Choruses. By bringing together musicians from around the nation, the NCGCC helped the independent gospel publishers sell their music.
Pace never joined the NCGCC, choosing instead to sell his music locally and via mail through his own network of Black-owned music stores. At his peak, he sent songs to 301 stores in 29 states and sold music to 2511 mail-order subscribers.
Publishing and distribution changed everything for Black church composers in the 1920s and 1930s. Before this time, there were certainly talented musicians working in the Black church. Many of the stylistic ingredients of what would become gospel music already existed. Musicians blended together ideas from Black folk music, blues, jazz, classical music, and many other sources. But it was not until talent and style met widespread distribution that gospel music exploded into a national phenomenon.
Christopher Lynch is project coordinator at the Center for American Music in the University of Pittsburgh Library System and artist lecturer in musicology at Carnegie Mellon University. At the Center, he introduces students and researchers to archival materials, including the Charles and Frankie Pace Collection. Learn more…