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What are the Origins of Gospel Music?

Niki Acker
Updated May 23, 2024
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Gospel music originated in the American South and is still primarily an American genre, although it has spread to other countries as well. It combines Christian lyrics, often taken from the Methodist hymnal, with American musical forms including jazz, blues, ragtime and bluegrass. This music has its roots in the spirituals composed and sung by African slaves in the 18th and 19th centuries, but it has evolved and changed through the years. It is most recognized today as the form it first took in the 1920s, when Sanctified churches encouraged joyful personal expression of religious faith.

During the period of slavery in the United States, slave owners sought to divest their slaves of African customs and forced them to adopt Western habits — one of which was the Christian religion. Slaves retained certain elements of their culture and a distinct African American culture grew out of the combination of African and European elements. Spiritual music is a good example of this, as it incorporates traditional African musical devices, such as the blue note and syncopation, with Christian lyrics.

Slaves also used the spiritual to communicate with each other, encoding messages about freedom and escape in apparently religious lyrics. For this reason, many songs are about the Exodus or God as liberator. Many also contain specific, albeit veiled, directions on how to make a successful escape.

Revivalist churches known as Sanctified or Holiness churches began emerging in the 19th century, and with them the form that would become known as gospel music. Traveling preachers brought the songs with them, and the music gained popularity in the secular world beginning in the 1920s. Thomas Dorsey was perhaps the most responsible for popularizing gospel music in the 1930s, and he wrote about 500 songs.

Gospel music has remained popular since the '30s, but some people disapprove of its secularization. In fact, some artists, such as singer Mahalia Jackson, refused to sing in secular contexts. Others, like Sam Cooke, embraced the world of popular music and sang secular songs in addition to religious ones.

Today, there are many different styles and offshoots of the genre. Southern gospel music, which originated around 1910, is based in White Southern churches and known for its all-male quartets and trios. Christian country music is another subgenre, and "Cowboy Churches" featuring the style have sprung up around the world. Traditional black gospel music has continued success in both secular and religious contexts. It is perhaps the most varied genre, and both soloists and choral arrangements are commonly heard.

Musical Expert is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
Niki Acker
By Niki Acker
"In addition to her role as a Musical Expert editor, Niki Foster is passionate about educating herself on a wide range of interesting and unusual topics to gather ideas for her own articles. A graduate of UCLA with a double major in Linguistics and Anthropology, Niki's diverse academic background and curiosity make her well-suited to create engaging content for WiseGeekreaders. "
Discussion Comments
By LisaLou — On Nov 05, 2012

My dad is a pastor so I have been around gospel music all my life. I used to listen to my favorite gospel groups on albums. I had a stereo in my room and would have gospel music playing in the background.

Now I like to download gospel music online. This means I can have this music at my fingertips no matter where I go. I also have the chance to listen to a lot more variety than I ever did before.

By andee — On Nov 04, 2012

@orange03 -- At my church we sing a combination of hymns and newer praise songs. This seems to keep everybody happy and I think it is good to have a variety. I know some churches will have separate services and play either traditional or contemporary gospel music. The service that has the contemporary music usually has a lot more young people. I enjoy going to a service that plays all kinds of gospel music and has people of all ages and walks of life.

By honeybees — On Nov 04, 2012

I think Bill Gaither has done more for contemporary gospel music than anyone else. He is a great songwriter and has written a lot of gospel songs that are sung in churches today. He also likes to find new talent and help them get started in the gospel music industry.

If you have ever been to one of his concerts, you know he usually has several different groups. Some are groups that have been around for awhile, but there are usually a few new ones that are just getting started as well.

I love listening to Gaither gospel music because the words and music are very encouraging and uplifting. No matter what kind of day I am having, playing gospel music has a way of making everything a little bit better.

By Mykol — On Nov 03, 2012

Ever since I was a young girl I went with my mom to gospel music concerts. She especially loves Southern gospel and has gone to concerts all across the country. I don't think she goes to a concert without buying a least one CD of the group. This means she has quite an extensive selection of gospel music.

When my parents take a long trip somewhere they load up the CD player in their car with gospel music. In the trunk of their car they have a CD player that hold 24 different CD's. They can make it to Phoenix to visit my sister without ever needing to change a CD and never listen to the same over again during that drive.

By Oceana — On Aug 27, 2012

I think that gospel choir music is very uplifting. There is something really special and powerful about so many voices singing different parts and coming together to produce one cohesive sound.

By feasting — On Aug 26, 2012

@orangey03 – While I agree with you about the monotony of those newer praise songs sung in church, I must say that I do love listening to contemporary gospel music by newer artists. These are songs that do have several verses that don't repeat themselves, though.

The music is a lot like pop or rock, but the lyrics have a positive message. I prefer it to a lot of the lyrics in pop songs today, because so many of them focus on sin.

I like to feel something when I listen to music, and I like for that something to be positive. Contemporary gospel music gives me that feeling.

By orangey03 — On Aug 25, 2012

I like to listen to a lot of the new gospel music, but in my church, we always stick to the old hymnals. I know of several churches with a lot of young members who focus almost exclusively on praise songs written in the last few decades, but my church would never do that.

There is something sacred about the old songs that our ancestors wrote and sang. The lyrics tend to be deeper than those new praise songs that repeat the same lines over and over. Almost every old hymn has at least three different verses, along with a chorus. I think that offers more opportunity for reflection than just singing, “Praise God,” over and over again.

By cloudel — On Aug 25, 2012

@winning – I live in the deep South, and a lot of people here love both Elvis and gospel music. In fact, his gospel music songs are some of their favorites that he ever did.

I grew up around gospel music, and I know many of the old songs by heart. I think it is powerful when someone famous for popular music chooses to release a gospel album, because their audience is so much larger than that of your average gospel singer.

By winning — On Apr 06, 2011

It has long been my opinion that some of the most vocally demanding songs Elvis did were his Gospel numbers.

As a former tenor, Gospel is one of the most joyful forms of choir music anyone can attempt. It is also some of the hardest!

Niki Acker
Niki Acker
"In addition to her role as a Musical Expert editor, Niki Foster is passionate about educating herself on a wide range...
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