The Sweet Sounds and Sights of Chicago Gospel Music History and Architecture

Chicago Gospel music history is one of the city’s greatest and perhaps most unsung stories. People know of jazz and blues history in Chicago, but not as many know how gospel flourished here. The annual Chicago Gospel Music Festival is this weekend, so exploring this rich history seems apt. The personalities, buildings, and sounds of Chicago Gospel music history have made an inestimable contribution to the city.

We research stories from Chicago history, architecture and culture like this while developing our live virtual tours, in-person private tours, and custom content for corporate events. You can join us to experience Chicago’s stories in-person or online. We can also create custom tours and original content about this Chicago topic and countless others.

A Centuries-Old Tradition

Chicago Gospel music is just one of several styles of African-American music endemic to Chicago. The spirituals which slaves sang on Southern plantations is the root sound for modern Gospel music. Interestingly, it seems the famous “call and response” style of singing that typifies spirituals and Gospel has Gaelic origins. Seems that some Scottish Presbyterian slave-owners taught their “lining out” method of singing.

Historically, Gospel music was an a cappella style of music. The slaves and sharecroppers had little more elaborate than clapping or stomping during this era of great injustice. New instruments and sounds were added as Gospel music moved out of the South during the Great Migration.

The Birthplace of Chicago Gospel Music

Bronzeville, of course, was the primary destination for African-Americans moving to Chicago. The “Black Metropolis” was home to paragons of black society, like the Chicago Defender, and luminaries of black culture, like Louis Armstrong and Ida B. Welles. In its early 20th century heyday Bronzeville was the “capital of African-America;” as renowned and important as Harlem during its renaissance.

Back then most of the musical performances in Bronzeville were on “The Stroll.” This was the entertainment strip on State Street, jam-packed full of nightclubs, theaters, movie theaters, and hustlers. (Today it is the heart of the Illinois Institute of Technology Campus, and you won’t see any visual clues to its historic past.) “The Stroll” was far too profane a spot for us to find the origins of Chicago Gospel music history, though. For that, you’d have to head a few blocks southeast to the Pilgrim Baptist Church at the corner of Indiana and 33rd Street. This legendary spot is widely agreed to be the birthplace of Chicago Gospel music. (By the way, you can learn all about this on one of our custom private tours of Chicago’s neighborhoods.)

Pilgrim Baptist Church Chicago Adler and Sullivan
Adler and Sullivan’s architecture housed the birthplace of Chicago Gospel music. Image via Wikimedia.

Thomas A. Dorsey and Pilgrim Baptist Church

Chicago Gospel music history Thomas A. Dorsey
Thomas A. Dorsey parlayed his blues roots into the leading role in Chicago Gospel music history. Image via Wikimedia.

Pilgrim Baptist Church was in a historic structure first designed as a synagogue by Adler and Sullivan. The latter’s famous skill at acoustical engineering may have helped attract Thomas A. Dewey to become the congregation’s music director in 1932. Dorsey remained in that post for over 40 years. Drawing upon the thriving music scene of Bronzeville he would completely redefine American religious music and create a new genre.

Dorsey played jazz piano in the 1920’s under the stage name “Georgia Tom.” Dorsey took what people called the sound of “The Stroll,” with blues piano and R&B rhythms, and integrated it into the traditional call and response of Gospel music. This fusion style would go on to have major crossover appeal. Religious groups loved having a contemporary and hip sound for their music, while pop musicians appreciated the prestige and expanded audience.

Mahalia Jackson and The Impact of Gospel

Like countless others, Mahalia Jackson escaped the Jim Crow South for Chicago during the Great Migration. Her stunning contralto voice caught the attention of Thomas Dorsey. They began a touring collaboration in the mid-30’s that produced one of the most enduring hits of Chicago Gospel music history: “Precious Lord, Take My Hand.” Dorsey wrote the song after the wife of his first wife and child due to complications during delivery. Jackson’s stunning rendition of it rolls its impact out slowly; its cumulative effect feels like being ripped away by an emotional current as strong as the Mississippi. Hear it here.

The song was a favorite of many famous and significant figures, perhaps most prominently the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. He invited Jackson to sing it in Montgomery, Alabama during the bus boycott which shot him to worldwide prominence. Jackson’s rendition of the song would go onto be something of an anthem for the Civil Rights Movement. Dr. King’s last words were reportedly a request to play the song at a mass he’d attend that evening. Mahalia Jackson would perform it at his funeral only days later.

That anecdote, to me, exemplifies the importance of Chicago Gospel music history. It’s impossible to understate the force that these songs have, no matter one’s personal religious beliefs. They expressed the hope and righteousness of a people’s struggle to assert and express their freedom. That’s an especially important and powerful quality considering the times we live in.

Mahalia Jackson Chicago Gospel music history
Mahalia Jackson’s stunning voice and righteous presence made her a musical and social icon. Image via Wikimedia.

Chicago Gospel Music History Today and Tomorrow

As mentioned, the Chicago Gospel Music Festival is held annually in early June. The events and concerts will take place at the Cultural Center and Millennium Park in downtown. (Might I suggest looking into a Downtown Bucket List private tour while you’re in the Loop?) Interestingly, many of the performers these days are carrying on Dorsey’s tradition by tying Gospel music to contemporary sounds like hip hop and house.

We’re also in the early stages of what could be a great new moment in Chicago Gospel music history down in Bronzeville. The historic Pilgrim Baptist Church was gutted by fire over a decade ago. Adler and Sullivan’s landmark exterior walls are all that’s left, and they’re only standing due to a bulky supporting steel frame. You can even see into some of the windows where boards have fallen down, and you’ll see there is no roof!

Recently a plan to rejuvenate the building was unveiled. A group of local business leaders are raising money to turn the building into the National Museum of Gospel Music. We’d love to see that happen! Though with the many millions of dollars needed to make this project “move up a little higher,” as Mahalia would say, patience will be a virtue.

– Alex Bean, Content Manager and Tour Guide


Chicago Detours is a boutique tour company passionate about connecting people to places and each other through the power of storytelling. We bring curious people to explore, learn and interact with Chicago’s history, architecture and culture through in-person private group tourscontent production, and virtual tours.


Share on facebook
Share on twitter
Share on pinterest
Share on linkedin

be a



Private Tour Coordinator and Tour Guide

There is no shortage of things to discover in Chicago—I love being an urban explorer and uncovering its hidden places. I have an MA in Public History from Loyola University Chicago, and I have worked as a museum educator and kindergarten teacher. My desire to learn new things fuels my passion for educating others, which I get to experience every day as a Chicago tour guide. I live in the northern neighborhood of Rogers Park.

“Our guide Ellen was exceptional and gifted with a great personal touch.”


Tour Guide

Whether you are a first-time visitor or a lifelong resident, the vibrant history and modern majesty of Chicago never ceases to amaze. I’m a graduate of Columbia College with an M.A. in Interdisciplinary Art. I’ve worked for many years as an educator at City Colleges of Chicago. As tour guide at Chicago Detours, I integrate my enthusiasm for culture and architecture with my passion as an educator. West Town/Noble Square area is home for me.

“Jen was a perfect storyteller and kept us spellbound for hours.”


Tour Guide

With our Chicago neighborhoods, vibrant cultural institutions and nearly two centuries of larger-than-life stories, there’s never a dull moment here! I’m a fifth generation Chicagoan and a graduate of Washington University in St. Louis. In addition to guiding tours, I’m a creative writer and amateur genealogist. I also enjoy the city’s dynamic theater scene. You can also read overlooked stories from 19th-century newspapers on my “Second Glance History” blog. I live in River North.


Tour Guide

Chicago is unique as it always evolves into the future while holding on to the past. I’m fascinated by how people latch on to old architecture but happily pave over others. My background is in theater and performance and I’ve been a tour guide here for more than 10 years. Currently I’m finishing my Master’s in Public History at Loyola University because I love to teach the history of this scrappy city. I’m in the Edgewater neighborhood.


Operations Coordinator and Tour Guide

Chicago’s history is so fascinating, you could spend a lifetime uncovering its secrets…I’m willing to give it a try! I have an M.A. in US History from the University of Nevada-Las Vegas and then pursued doctoral studies in Urban History at the University of Illinois at Chicago. I love to learn new aspects of Chicago’s rich history and then share my knowledge as a tour guide with Chicago Detours. I live in Ravenswood.

“Marie was a bubbling fountain of information and contagious enthusiasm.”


Operations Coordinator and Tour Guide

As a fourth generation Chicagoan, I have been living and loving Chicago by bike, on foot, public transit or automobile. I am a graduate of UIC where through the College of Urban Planning and Public Affairs, began my eagerness to understand the nature, history and impacts of urban planning and development. It is incredibly rewarding to give back to this wonderful city by helping out in the office of Chicago Detours. I live in the incredibly diverse neighborhood of Albany Park.
“Sonny was extremely knowledgeable about all things Chi-town.”
Wade K


Content Manager and Tour Guide

Chicago has so many neighborhoods, buildings, and by-ways that it’s hard to go long without seeing something new, or something familiar from a new angle. I studied Cinema History for my M.A. from the University of Chicago. I’ve worked as a culture writer for various publications and as an educator of the humanities at the City Colleges of Chicago. I’m thrilled to share my love of this city’s busy past and unique architectural spaces with Chicago Detours. I live in the Chicago neighborhood of Lincoln Park.

“Alex was fascinating to listen to. He clearly knows his history and it shows.”
Katie K

Amanda Scotese

Executive Director and Tour Guide

I’m an interpreter of personal stories from the past and the city’s landscape. I love to imagine what originally happened inside old unmarked buildings, and what forces have shaped their design. I studied Chicago history, architectural history, and anything Chicago-related through my M.A. in the Humanities at the University of Chicago. My love for stories was enriched by my B.A. in Literature from the University of Michigan. I’ve written travel articles for publications like Rick Steves’ Italy best-selling travel guides, the San Francisco Bay Guardian, and The Chicago Food Encyclopedia. I live in the Chicago neighborhood of West Avondale.
“You can TELL Amanda is hyper-passionate about doing the research and getting the story that nobody’s heard before.”
Shelby F

Book a chicago event

Let’s Connect!