The President and First Lady hosted music legends and top gospel artists at the White House yesterday for the latest installment of “In Performance at the White House.” The evening of musical performances paid tribute to the fundamental role that gospel music has played in shaping American history and culture.

“Gospel music has evolved over time, but its heart stays true,” the President said. “It still has an unmatched power to strike the deepest chord in all of us.”

President Obama opened the East Wing celebration by thanking the evening’s special guests, which included T Bone Burnett, Aretha Franklin, and master of ceremonies Robin Roberts. The night included performances by Pastor Shirley Caesar, Darlene Love, Rhiannon Giddens, Rance Allen, Emmylou Harris, Rodney Crowell, Tamela Mann, Lyle Lovett, and the Morgan State University Choir.

In his remarks, the President noted the unique and influential history of gospel music, explaining that many of America’s favorite genres — including jazz, Motown, blues, and country — can be traced back to gospel music.

As for the origins of gospel itself, he said, we don’t know everything. However, we do know that it is well-rooted in the spirituals sung by slaves. While they were often prohibited from reading, writing, or even speaking, slaves were able to sing.

“Songs were where their dreams took flight, where they expressed faith and love, as well as pain and fear and unimaginable loss,” the President said.

In the decades after the Civil War, freed slaves traveled north and brought their beautiful hymns and songs with them. By the 1960s, gospel music became a staple of the Civil Rights Movement — blending the sounds of the church with the sounds of jazz and blues. Hymns like “Take My Hand, Precious Lord” and “We Shall Overcome” became the songs of the movement, which the President said gave hope that we might rise above our failures and disappointments.

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