The History of Gospel Music in Western Canada

The roots of gospel music in Western Canada extend back almost two centuries and cross not only national and ethnic boundaries, but boundaries between musical genres as well. This project, initiated by University of Alberta anthropologist Carl Urion, explores both the roots and current practice of gospel music in three overlapping communities of practice that during the 20th century came to be called Black gospel, Southern gospel and Native gospel. A shared body of songs in those three communities is the legacy of our forebears here having sung for and with each other, even during times of violent social conflict.

Here are five brief examples that show the diversity of gospel music communities in Western Canada:

  1. Ever since first contact, Canadian Indigenous peoples have been incorporating European music into an ancient traditional system of exchanging and creating songs. Gospel music in First Nations and Métis communities of Western Canada reflects that long history. A camp meeting tradition that began in the 19th century is very much alive today. People jam this music, exchange recordings of it on social media, listen to it on Indigenous radio stations and sing it at both parties and wakes. There are Indigenous gospel jamborees and special gospel music events in all the Western provinces and territories, and musical exchange across the US border.
  2. Black gospel music has been in Western Canada for over 110 years. In the first decade of the 20th century, African American pioneers from the American Midwest and South brought the music, a central part of a much larger repertoire of styles, to settlements such as Turtleford and Maidstone in Saskatchewan, and Amber Valley, Junkins, and Campsie in Alberta. Between 1906 and 1914, William Smith, an African-American gospel singer and preacher from Denver, led an intercultural religious and social movement in Edmonton. Gospel music was a core practice for its European, Anglo-American, African-American, and Cree members. Immigration from the Caribbean and Africa over the past 50 years added to the rich spectrum of Black gospel idioms here.
  3. Mennonites played a central role in the early 19th century evolution of gospel music in Appalachia, and later in that century they took the tradition to the Ukraine. Ukrainian Mennonites brought American gospel music, in Plattdeutsch and German, to Western Canada as early as the 1870s. Throughout the 20th century Mennonites from Manitoba to British Columbia have played a huge role in keeping the Southern gospel music tradition alive. Their promotion of gospel music has been a factor in breaking down denominational walls. They are still crossing international borders with this music. Mennonites in Northern Alberta with connections to Central and South America sing gospel music in Spanish, English and two varieties of German.
  4. Between 1910 and 1960, almost 200,000 young people attended one of the 90 Bible schools that were established west of Ontario. Those schools played a major role in music education and in spreading gospel music in the West from the 1930s through the 1970s, especially with male quartets, mixed ensembles, and women’s trios. Some of the singing groups from the Bible schools went on to international success.
  5. Three politician preachers, Premiers Tommy Douglas of Saskatchewan, and William Aberhart and Ernest Manning in Alberta, changed the face of politics in Western Canada during the middle years of the 20th century. In Alberta, the pianist and musical director for Premier Aberhart’s weekly gospel radio broadcast in the 1930s was Muriel Preston. Her husband, Ernest Manning, took over from Aberhart as both preacher and premier,  and for more than 30 years Albertans heard gospel and church music on their premier’s weekly evangelical radio program.

About the Project

The project involves collecting audio archives, including vinyl, CDs, and cassette tapes. We have completed archival research; invited community engagement through attendance at gatherings where gospel music is practiced; video-recorded two major gospel music events; and completed interviews with people who make and love this music.

For more information about the project, or to get involved, email gospelmusic@ualberta.ca.