Soul Music

At the Beginning was the Church

Solar worships

Cory Henry & The Funk Apostles at the stage at Cosmopolite in Soria Moria. The concert took place on 30. October 2017. Lineup: Cory Henry (vocal), Nicholas Semrad (keyboard), Adam Agati (guitar), TaRon Lockett (drums), Sharay Reed (bass guitar), Denise Stoudmire (backing vocal) and Tiffany Stevenson (backing vocal).

Credit Photo: Tore Sætre / Wikimedia  Creative Commons Attribution ShareAlike 4.0

The church appeared as a shelter for African-Americans. Following their own ministers, they soon developed a unique way to celebrate the Almighty, paroxystic and on the verge of trance. While the Gospel tradition undoubtedly brought many gifted and seasoned vocalists, the powerfulness still shines in evangelical, mainly pentecostal jams, and other services. 

We must situate the socio-religious context as inevitably linked to the Black Church. The specific African-American Christian cult has been named and conceptualized as Black Church. This is due to the specificities linked to its religious practices, implying an advanced practice of singing and a porosity between rural blues and evangelical prosody. To a larger extent, Black Church played a leading role in the Black community, as a social work. Within this social work leadership, music takes pride of place1.

The Black Church

A look at Contemporary Gospel acts such as the late Rev. James Moore (1956-2000), a native from Detroit Michigan, gives a precise insight into the level and power of church music nowadays. The skills developed by church musicians are extremely refined and they have nothing to be ashamed of when compared to conservatory students (though most of the time they are getting a classical training at the same time). The choirs and the amplified instruments are extremely loud, because the communion with God expects them to give all.

This “Black sacred music”, using elements of urban funk and soul music, soon turned into a whole genre in its own right with its own codes, ending in finding its place in the studios, venues and musical industry.

Crossing genres: sacred/profane, back and forth

Nevertheless, we would like to concentrate on the more “secularized” Black music type. The coexistence of a “Black church Gospel” and a secularized Black music vast genre (a branch that is now nearly 60 years) is questionable. And if they share aesthetic similarities, their ways of interpreting and their codes are quite different. Some of the performers dare to play profane music, while others exclusively dedicate themselves to the music of the church service.

Boyer, Horace C. “The History and Importance of the Black Church.” Harvard Gazette, 9 Mar. 2021,

Songrwriting Soul Music Text analysis

Donny Hathaway’s Thank You, Master (For my Soul): Food for the Soul

Prologue : Donny Hathaway (1945-1979) released his debut solo album, Everything is Everything in 1970. The Chicago native explores the typical love/soul theme concern, addressing to God.

A soulful moment amidst various styles, from rhythm and blues to Cuban rhythm, is the classic gospel-inspired Thank You, Master (For my Soul).

This is a very typical incarnation of gospel and Negro spiritual genre in a soul record from the 1970s, reaching success in popular audiences, as did Ray Charles records.

First of all, double and equivocal meanings are remarkable, so as the general praising tonality. The words are sung on a piano-driven laidback and slow groove, alternating a range of shades, form quiet, nearly silent passages to moaning vocals helped by a solid brass ensemble.  

Here, Master can be heard as a way to address to God in an ambiguous or double-sided meaning, but Lord is added to unveil the intention, hence the use of the anaphoric way. This is quite a relatively simple prayer-type songwriting. The vocabulary is as simple as it can be, and the repetition is typical of the greeting, thankfulness song. One can count 26 repetitions of “Thank You”, with the exception of the more formal “Much Obliged”. Humility, as a result, dominates the song.

In this respect, despite the pain, despite the sadness and the tears, Donny Hathaway thanks the Lord for keeping him. One can see it is none of a request for absolution or penitence: just selfless and pure thankfulness, as suggested by the following example, underlining a certain unworthiness:

My Bed was not my cooling board

Using a metaphor with the equipment used for dead bodies preservation, Hathaway emphasizes on his own ability to live as simply as can be, and to thank God for putting shoes on his feet (a typical biblical figure), completed with words: the walls of his room were not the walls of his grave.

With a catchy hint, Hathaway addresses the audience with a rather disturbing, somewhat elusive:

 Y’All don’t know what I’m talking about.

What’s more, it precisely synthesizes the unique relation, quite mystical, with God.

Some of the stances then following offer a double, if not, a triple reading and an increase in intensity. For instance, with the play of words hereafter in the last words of the song (that are echoed by a backing vocal performed by Hathaway himself), Hathaway uses a surprising polyptotic anaphora:

My sheet (my sheet) was not my wine (Was not my whining sheet).

On the whole, this is the epitome of revisited Gospel in popular soul music, characterized by this ability to play with words. Sheet can be linked to either a musical sheet, a bed sheet or, eventually, as suggested by the echoed words in brackets, a whining sheet, to dry one’s tears. Wine undoubtedly refers to the Christ’s blood at the church, given by the Minister, while Hathaway opposes sheet/wine in a curious manner that seems more relative to improvisation and the subsequent ad libitum part. A satiety that meets the need for “food for the spirit” while it still does suppose the “food for the body”.

Every single good owned briefly by the praying songwriter is described as a precious gift given by God, as a reference to the famous overexploited quotation  found in the book of Job “The Lord Gave, and the Lord Hath Taken Away” (Job 1:21). Even the word blessed, in “But Lord You Blessed Me” can be linked to either the benediction or the gift.

Thank You, Master (For my Soul)

(Donny Hathaway, 1970)

[Verse 1]
Thank You, Master, for my soul
Thank You, Master, thank you for my soul
You gave me food to eat, you put shoes on my feet
And You kept me
Lord, I know, haven’t been so good this week
But You continue to Bless me
And just want to take time to thank You, for my soul

[Verse 2]
Thank You, Master, thank You for my soul
Lord, thank You, thank You, Master, thank You for my soul, yeah
‘Cause you didn’t have to hear my moanin’
Lord, You didn’t have to hear my groanin’
But You kept me, yeah
You put shoes on my feet, you kept food for me to eat, yeah
And Lord, how You Blessed me
But most of all, thank You, Master, for my soul
Thank You, thank You

That’s alright

Thank You, Master, Lord, thank You for my soul, yeah
Thank You for my hands, thank You for my feet
Thank You, Lord, thank You for my mind
Thank You for my soul
Lord, I know I haven’t been so good this week, God
But You kept me
You didn’t have to hear my moanin’
You didn’t have to hear my groanin’, hey hey
But Lord, You Blessed me
And Lord, i want to thank You
I just got to say “much obliged” to You, Master
‘Cause the walls of my room was not the walls of my grave
My bed was not my cooling board
Y’all don’t know what i’m talkin’ ’bout
My sheet (My sheet) was not my wine (Was not my whining sheet)
And I want to say thank You, thank You
Thank You, thank You, thank You, I want to thank You, Lord

Search OpenEdition Search

You will be redirected to OpenEdition Search