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.