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582 Topics: Traditional Gospel Music and Thomas A. Dorsey; cliché versus stereotype; chicken versus hen; to nail it

Complete Transcript
You’re listening to ESL Podcast’s English Café number 582.

This is English as a Second Language Podcast’s English Café number 582. I’m your host, Dr. Jeff McQuillan, coming to you from the Center for Educational Development in beautiful Los Angeles, California. (Had something in my throat there.)

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On this Café, we’re going to talk about a great American art form – the tradition of African American or black gospel music, and one of the most important musicians in this tradition, Thomas A. Dorsey. And as always, we’ll answer a few of your questions. Let’s get started.

Today we talk about gospel music. The term “gospel” (gospel) usually refers to the writings about the founder of the Christian religion – that would be Jesus Christ, of course. There are, in the Christian Bible, four gospels, written by Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. However, “gospel” can also be a type of music – or perhaps more correctly, a style of music that originated or began in American churches in the late nineteenth century by African American or black Christians.

It’s a style of music that continues to this day, continues to be popular in churches attended by African Americans, but also in other traditions as well, including outside of church. Gospel music emerged from African American churches and their traditions in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. “To emerge” (emerge) means that something began in a certain place and became more popular or more important.

The origins of gospel music were really an earlier tradition among African Americans in the U.S., what is called the “spiritual.” The “spiritual” was a religious song that was often sung by the slaves in the American South – slaves being those people who are bought and sold as property. Spirituals themselves are a mix of musical influences including African music as well as European church music.

So, you saw in the early and mid-nineteenth century the development of the spiritual as a kind of song that was sung by African Americans in churches as well as outside of churches. Gospel music is an extension of that tradition, or at least it takes partly from that tradition some of its own characteristics.

One of the big changes that took place in the development of gospel music in the late nineteenth century was that the music itself became more energetic, more what we might describe as “lively.” “Lively” (lively) means full of excitement – the sort of music that would make you move around, that would make your body move or inspire you to move.

This was in part because a new kind of church became popular among African Americans during this period. It wasn’t just a musical change, it was also what we might describe I suppose as a change in the way the church services themselves were celebrated. In particular, there was popular in the African American community a Pentecostal movement. “Pentecostal” (Pentecostal) is a word that is used to describe a certain kind of Christian celebration, certain Christian ceremonies that are often marked by a lot of enthusiasm by the people who are there.

People show their emotions in a way that they would not in other kinds of church services – more traditional church services, if you will. There are other parts of the Pentecostal movement that are theological and not just related to the way the service is conducted, but for our purposes, the important thing to understand is that the people in the Pentecostal churches in the African American communities used the service as an inspiration for changing the music that they had in their services.

It became common for the preacher at the services, the person who was leading the service and usually giving some sort of religious talk or sermon, would say things and the people there at the service whom we would call the “congregation” (congregation) would respond to what the preacher was saying.

So the preacher would say something, and instead of the congregation, the people, just listening, they would respond back by saying “amen” or something that would show their agreement with what the preacher, the leader of the religious service, was saying. This is not something that was typical in religious services before this period and certainly is not typical even today in most religious services.

Another important influence on the development of the gospel music was a non-religious kind of music called “blues,” which was also popular at this time in the African American or black community. “Blues” (blues) is a type of music that we usually associate with a sad theme, a sad story, talking about lost love and unhappiness. This was another tradition in African American music, but one that was completely non-religious. In fact, many blues songs have a sexual content to them that would be very much not at home in a church service.

The man most responsible for combining these very different sources of inspiration – blues with Pentecostal religious services and spirituals – was Thomas A. Dorsey. Thomas Dorsey was born in July of 1899 in what we refer to as the “Deep South.” The Deep South are those states in the southeastern United States we typically associate with the Confederacy, the losing side in the Civil War.

Dorsey was born in Georgia, which is in the southeast U.S. next to the state of Florida. Dorsey’s father was a minister, a preacher in a church, and his mother was a piano teacher. When Dorsey was 16, he moved to Chicago in the North. It was actually quite common during the early nineteenth century for African Americans in the South to move out of the South into certain large cities in the North including Chicago, Detroit, and New York.

Dorsey moved to Chicago not to work but to study at the College of Composition and Arranging. “Composition” (composition) is the act of putting musical notes together to form a song. We call someone who writes music, often, a “composer,” especially when we’re talking about classical music, although the word is used for any kind of music. “Composition” is the process of composing or writing songs.

The college also had the word “arranging” in it. “To arrange (arrange) music” means to take a piece of music and to change it so that it can be either performed by a certain group of instruments or sung by different voices. It’s often necessary to take a piece of music that is going to be played by, let’s say, a group of five musicians. It’s often necessary to arrange the music so that you have different parts that are played by different instruments. Well, someone has to make that music playable by the different instruments and we call that person an “arranger,” and the process is “arranging music.”

Dorsey learned the art of composition and arranging, and it was a set of skills that he was to use throughout the rest of his life. He started off working not in churches but in bands with other musicians, especially those who were singing blues music. He became himself a successful blues musician. He went by the name Georgia Tom because he was, of course, from Georgia.

In 1928, he worked with another musician to record what became a very popular song, called “It’s Tight Like That.” The song went on to sell seven million copies, and as a blues composer, Dorsey was very successful. He either wrote or produced over 400 blues songs. One of the things that marks Dorsey as an important person in early twentieth century American music was the fact that he wrote so much music, beginning in the blues tradition and later in the gospel tradition.

Now, I mentioned earlier that blues music is often about themes or topics that would not be appropriate for a church, and many people were surprised that Dorsey, who was a very good blues musician and songwriter, would eventually become a gospel writer. But beginning in the early 1930s, he went back and started working in churches to write music for churches. He kept some of the musical influence of the blues and began to use that to write this form of gospel music that had, of course, a religious theme.

He became director of the choir at a Baptist church in Chicago. The Baptists are a group of, or what we would call, “denomination” of Christians that were very popular among the African American community. Even today, a large number of African Americans who are Christian are members of the Baptist denomination. I said that Dorsey became the choir leader. A “choir” (choir) is an organized group of singers that usually are singing at a church service, although not always.

As Dorsey got more interested in gospel music, he helped start an organization dedicated to, or to help promote, gospel music in the United States and was the president of that organization for almost 40 years. Although Dorsey became well known in the African American community as a leader of this organization and as a choir director, his real fame, his real popularity, is due to the fact that he wrote so many songs in the gospel tradition. He began to record some of the songs – that is, he began to produce records with these songs – in the early 1930s and traveled around the country playing this music in different cities.

Many of the songs that he wrote and recorded during this time have become important and among the best-known gospel songs even today. His songs have a common theme. They tend to be very positive. They tend to be what we might describe as “uplifting” (uplifting). They make you feel happy. They make you feel more connected with your religion, or at least that was their effect on the people who sang the music during this period and today.

Someone estimated that almost 25 percent of all gospel songs that are sung in churches today were written by Thomas Dorsey, this one man. Perhaps the most famous song that Dorsey wrote was in 1932, called “Take My Hand Precious Lord.” “Lord” refers to Jesus Christ. “Precious” (precious) describes something that you love and that is very valuable to you, something that you want to protect. “Take my hand” means, in this case, help me. “Hold my hand and help me through this difficult period,” perhaps.

It was in fact during a very difficult period in Dorsey’s life that he wrote this song which became his most popular. In 1932, Dorsey’s first wife died in childbirth, while the child was being born, and the child died the very next day. This event completely changed Dorsey. He became quite depressed about it and used that sadness, I guess, to write this amazing song.

The song continues to be sung in many churches and was recorded by many famous artists. In 1968, the civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr., himself a Baptist minister, asked that the song be sung at one of his speeches. It was, sadly, just before that speech that King was assassinated or killed. So the song has a lot of powerful connections to the African American community and to, of course, the church services at which gospel music is performed.

For good reason, Dorsey came to be called the “father of gospel,” because the music he wrote was so important and so popular. Some people even referred to gospel songs as Dorsey’s because he had written so many of them. Dorsey lived a long life. He died in January of 1993 at the age of 93. His songs continue to be sung. Who knows, maybe you have sung some of them yourself without realizing it.

I’ll end this section just to clarify something that might be confusing. Thomas Dorsey is not related to, in any way, another famous musician from the 1920s with a very similar name, Tommy Dorsey. Tommy Dorsey (“Tommy” is just another variation of Thomas) was a jazz musician, a white jazz musician who was also famous for composing and recording good music – just not gospel music.

Now let’s answer some of the questions you have sent to us.

Our first question comes from Reza (Reza) in Sweden. Reza’s question is the difference between “cliché” and “stereotype.” “Cliché” (cliché) with an accent mark over the “e,” because it is a word that we have imported or taken from French. In English, the word “cliché” is used to describe something that is no longer original or no longer interesting, something that has been done over and over again, especially when we’re talking about either what someone says or some sort of artistic production.

A “cliché phrase” or a “cliché expression” refers to phrases or expressions that everyone uses and that show that the person who is saying them or writing them isn’t very original, doesn’t have very much creativity. We often criticize writing that has clichés in it, when the writer uses phrases or expressions that are used by lots of people and therefore aren’t as effective, don’t show any originality in thought. You could also describe, say, the plot or story of a movie as being cliché, meaning it’s not original. It’s been done before many, many times.

The word “stereotype” (stereotype) is usually used in English to describe some unfair or untrue belief about a certain group of people. A “stereotype” is an idea about someone just because he or she is part of a certain group. So you may think, for example, that all Americans are loud and rude. Well, I know a lot of loud and rude Americans, but not all Americans are loud and rude. That might be an example of a stereotype.

Stereotypes are usually negative, but not always. Some people may have a positive stereotype about a group of people, thinking that everyone in that group has the same characteristics as part of the group or even a majority of the group. Normally stereotypes are incorrect beliefs about a certain group or the members of a certain group, and usually it’s negative, but not always. Sometimes these stereotypes are the inspiration for comedy, but more often they are ideas that people might be hurt by.

Stereotypes are not the same as acts of discrimination. “Discrimination” is when you do something, usually illegal, to favor one group over another. Stereotypes are more psychological in the sense that they are about your attitudes and beliefs, not about your actions, though you might behave based on your stereotypes.

The next question comes from Adel (Adel) in Saudi Arabia. This is a fairly simple question: “What’s the difference between a ‘chicken’ (chicken) and a ‘hen’ (hen)?” This is an easy one. A “chicken” is a bird used by people for its eggs and sometimes for its meat. I love eating chicken, for example. There are male chickens called the “roosters” (roosters), and then there are female chickens called “hens.” Another older term for a rooster is a “cock” (cock), although that also has a very vulgar meaning in English which I won’t discuss here on the podcast.

So you have “roosters” and you have “hens.” In Great Britain, there is something called a “hen party,” which in the United States we would probably call a “bachelorette party.” This is a party that a woman who is about to be married has with her female friends. The opposite of that in the U.S. would be a “bachelor” or “stag (stag) party.” A “stag” is a male deer.

Notice we don’t use chickens for our animal when talking about having parties for the man or woman about to be married; we use deer. Although we don’t use the equivalent term for female parties, for bachelorette parties. So, “bachelor” and “bachelorette” parties, I guess, are the more common. The whole notion of a bachelorette party is fairly recent. Men used to have bachelor parties and still do. That tradition is much older than the bachelorette tradition.

Traditionally women have showers for each other when they are getting married. A “shower” (shower) is a party usually for a woman who is about to be married – that would be called a “bridal shower” – or who is about to have a baby – that would be called, logically, a “baby shower.” “Showers,” however, are not parties where you go out and get drunk as you would in a, say, a bachelorette party or a hen party in Great Britain. They are very quiet affairs over at someone’s house where you sit down and exchange gifts and perhaps play some games.

Anyway, how did I get started talking about that? So, “roosters” and “hens” are chickens. Baby chickens are called “chicks” (chicks). The word “chick” is also used somewhat in a negative way at times to refer to a woman, especially a young woman, although again you have to be careful with that because that can also be considered insulting. It depends on the context.

Our final question comes from Anna (Anna) right here in the good U.S. of A. Anna wants to know the meaning of a common informal expression, “to nail it.” “To nail (nail) it” means that you have done something very well. You have done it perfectly. You have done it successfully.

This is a common expression in conversational, informal English. It’s not something you would want to put in a formal business report, but for example, if you take an examination, a test, and you get everything right – you get 100 percent correct on the test – you could say that you “nailed it.” You did it really, really well. Or if you’re playing basketball and you throw the ball and it goes into the net and you get three points because you threw the ball from a long distance, you could say, “Yes – I nailed it.” I did it perfectly.

Because this is informal English, you’ll often hear other adverbs go together with this expression, like “I totally nailed it.” I totally nailed that exam. I totally nailed it. “Totally” there is just used for emphasis. A “nail,” in case you’re wondering, is a short piece of metal that is used usually with wood, to connect two pieces of wood together or to connect something to a piece of wood.

If you are going to hang or put a picture on your wall, you would probably take a nail and put it into the wall so that you could hang the metal or string on the back of the picture so that it stays up on the wall. You use a “hammer” (hammer) to hit a nail into a wall or a piece of wood. So there’s probably a connection there, since the verb “to nail” is also used in that same situation, where you’re taking a hammer and hitting it against a nail, a small piece of thin, sharp metal.

This is not to be confused with the 1980s rap singer MC Hammer. [Can’t touch this] Yeah, you remember. Don’t say you don’t.

If you have a question or comment, you can email us. Our email address is eslpod@eslpod.com.

From Los Angeles, California, I’m Jeff McQuillan. Thanks for listening. Come back and listen to us again right here on the English Café.

ESL Podcast’s English Café is written and produced by Dr. Jeff McQuillan and Dr. Lucy Tse. This podcast is copyright 2016 by the Center for Educational Development.

gospel – the ideas and principles of the Christian religion

* In church, we learn from the gospels to be kind and generous to others.

to emerge – for something to become noticeable and important

* Jorge never spoke about it, but stories began to emerge about his kindness and generosity to people in trouble or in need.

spiritual – a religious song originally developed and sung by African American slaves in the American south

* Amazing Grace is a popular spiritual often sung in times of great difficulty or hardship, such as at funerals.

lively – full of energy or excitement

* Bernice loved taking care of and being around her lively grandchildren.

congregation – the group of people who get together for religious worship; the people who belong to a specific church

* The minister asked the congregation to turn to each other and shake hands to greet their neighbors.

preacher – a person who gives religious talks or speeches in front of other people, usually in a church

* At our university, it’s not uncommon to see preachers giving speeches outdoors where students gather.

blues – a type of American music that sounds sad and tells the stories of lost love, deep troubles, or unhappiness

* B.B. King’s blues song When Love Comes to Town tells the story of a man who promises to change his cheating ways when his true love arrives in his life.

composition – the act of putting musical notes together to form a song or tune

* Mozart was a master of composition, creating music that no one had ever heard or dreamt of before.

to arrange – to adapt or change songs so that different voices or instruments can perform them

* The musical director is very good at arranging songs not originally intended to be played on brass instruments.

choir – an organized group of singers that takes part in church services

* The choir stood at the front of the church in their white robes and sang songs about love and charity.

precious – something or someone one loves and values very much and tries to protect

* Adriano’s daughters are precious to him and he’d do anything to protect them from dangers and disappointments.

cliché – a phrase or expression that has been used too often and is no longer original or interesting; something that is so commonly used in stories that it is tiresome or boring

* “Life is what you make it” is such a cliché and too often used in graduation speeches.

stereotype – an often unfair and untrue belief that many people have about all people or things with a particular characteristic or from a particular group

* Blond women are dumb is a stereotype that isn’t true of most of the blond women I know.

chicken – a bird that is raised by people for its eggs and meat

* If we buy a whole chicken, we can cut it up into pieces: breasts, thighs, drumsticks, and wings.

hen – an adult female chicken

* Some of the hens have stopped laying eggs because they’re not getting enough feed.

rooster – an adult male chicken

* I’m tired of waking up every morning at 5:00 a.m. to my neighbor’s crowing rooster!

to nail it – to do something very well or perfectly; to do something exactly right

* Joan hoped to hit the target a few times, but she nailed it by hitting it 10 out of 10 tries.

What Insiders Know
Christian Television/Cable Channels

In the United States, there are many Christian television channels and Christian “cable” (paid television) channels. Some of these programs are designed to “reach” (come to; interact with) people who are unable to attend “church services” (times when people meet at a church to “worship” (give praise and glory to God) and “pray” (speak with God, offering thanks and making requests)). These channels might be simple video “broadcasts” (sharing something as a video or audio recording) of regular church services, while others might have the “minister” (leader of a Christian church) speaking directly to the camera to make a recording specifically for television.

Other Christian television and cable channels are “evangelical.” Evangelical Christians are “passionate” (with a lot of enthusiasm and strong beliefs) believers of the Bible. They believe that Jesus Christ was the son of God, sent to “save” (provide salvation; give people hope after death) people, and they try to save others by telling them about their beliefs. Evangelical programs might have “moving” (involving a lot of emotion) “testimonials” in which people share personal stories about how their Christian beliefs have changed their lives, helping them “overcome” (succeed even though one faces big obstacles) problems such as drug addiction or “abuse” (being treated badly and hurt by other people).

Many Christian television/cable channels focus on “fundraising” (trying to collect money as donations from many people). They might request donations for “overseas mission work” (when churches send people to other countries to tell people about their beliefs) or for their efforts to feed the homeless. Other programs tell people that they will receive more “blessings” (the good things provided by God) if they “tithe” (donate 10% of their earnings to the church).