Members of the Virginia State University Gospel Choir at a competition in New York City.
The tradition that came to be recognized as black American gospel music emerged in the late 19th and early 20th centuries alongside ragtime, blues, and jazz. The progenitors of the tradition, however, lie in both black and white musics of the 19th century, including, most notably, black spirituals, slave songs, and white hymnody.
The roots of black gospel music can be ultimately traced to the hymnals of the early 19th century. A Collection of Spiritual Songs and Hymns Selected from Various Authors (1801) was the first hymnal intended for use in black worship. It contained texts written mostly by 18th-century British clergymen, such as Isaac Watts and Charles Wesley, but also included a number of poems by black American Richard Allenthe founder of the African Methodist Episcopal Churchand his parishioners. The volume contained no music, however, leaving the congregation to sing the texts to well-known hymn tunes. After the Civil War, black hymnals began to include music, but most of the arrangements employed the rhythmically and melodically straightforward, unembellished style of white hymnody.
In the last decade of the 19th century, black hymnody experienced a stylistic shift. Colourful and allusive texts, reminiscent in many respects of the older black spirituals, were set to melodies composed by white hymnodists. The arrangements, however, were adjusted to reflect black American musical sensibilities. Most significantly, the hymns were syncopated; that is, they were recast rhythmically by accentuating normally weak beats. Among the first hymnals to use this modified musical style was The Harp of Zion, published in 1893 and readily adopted by many black congregations.
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