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One can pursue the roots of gospel music through the academic discipline of ethno-musicology (going back to Europe and Africa), through a study of the 2,000-year history of church music, and through a study of rural folk music traditions. When it comes to the African American experience, gospel music can be traced to the early 17th century.]
Coming out of an oral tradition, gospel music typically utilizes a great deal of repetition. This is a device to promote group participation. And the repetition of the words allowed those who could not read the opportunity to participate in worship. During this time, hymns and sacred songs were lined and repeated in a call and response fashion, and the Negro spirituals and work songs emerged. Due to the enslaved Africans attending their masters’ worship services, the 17th-century influences on Negro spirituals and work songs were the traditional hymns which the enslaved had heard in worship services. Worship services served several purposes; not only were they a means by which the Africans could be monitored, but they also served as a reinforcement of the slavery indoctrination.
Quite often, readings were from the Apostle Paul's writings which outlined being good servants and loving, obeying, and trusting one’s master. At this time it was also illegal for more than a handful of blacks to congregate without supervision. This meant that the black people were not free to worship on their own and had to attend worship services with their master. At these services, their understanding of Christian doctrine grew, and music played a role in that experience. The worship music (hymns) of the whites became the backdrop for the music that the enslaved Africans would use at their eventual worship meetings.
Most of the churches did not have musical instruments to use. There would be guitars and tambourines available every now and then, but not frequently. There were not regular church choirs that existed at this time, and they did not use a piano very often. Most of the singing was done a cappella.]
Gospel also lends some of its more modern roots to the mass revival movement (starting with Dwight L. Moody, whose musician was Ira D. Sankey) and the Holiness-Pentecostal movement.] Prior to the meeting of Moody and Sankey in 1870, there was an American rural/frontier history of revival and camp meeting songs, but the gospel hymn was of a different character, and it served the needs of mass revivals in the great cities.]
The revival movement employed popular singers and song leaders (starting with Ira Sankey) who used songs by writers such as George F. Root, P. P. Bliss, Charles H. Gabriel, William Howard Doane, and Fanny Crosby.] The first published use of the term “gospel” to describe this kind of music was apparently in the 1870s. In 1874, P. P. Bliss edited a collection titled Gospel Songs, and in 1875 P. P. Bliss and Ira Sankey issued Gospel Hymns, no’s. 1 to 6, an extension of the 1874 Gospel Songs.] Sankey and Bliss’s collection can be found in many libraries today.
The popularity of revival singers and the openness of rural churches to this type of music (in spite of its initial use in city revivals) led to the late 19th and early 20th century establishment of gospel music publishing houses such as those of Homer Rodeheaver, E. O. Excell, Charlie Tillman, and Charles Tindley. These publishers were in the market for large quantities of new music, providing an outlet for the creative work of many songwriters and composers