The camp meeting tradition famously fostered a tradition of music and hymn singing with strong oral, improvisatory, and spontaneous elements. Since most participants could not read, and even if they could, printed hymn books were expensive, at first hymns and songs were taught and learned by rote. A spontaneous and improvisatory element was prized. Both tunes and words were created, changed, and adapted – often on the spot — in true folk music fashion:
Specialists in nineteenth-century American religious history describe camp meeting music as the creative product of participants who, when seized by the spirit of a particular sermon or prayer, would take lines from a preacher’s text as a point of departure for a short, simple melody. The melody was either borrowed from a preexisting tune or made up on the spot. The line would be sung repeatedly, changing slightly each time, and shaped gradually into a stanza that could be learned easily by others and memorized quickly.
Spontaneous song became a marked characteristic of the camp meetings. Rough and irregular couplets or stanzas were concocted out of Scripture phrases and every-day speech, with liberal interspersing of Hallelujahs and refrains. Such ejaculatory hymns were frequently started by an excited auditor during the preaching, and taken up by the throng, until the meeting dissolved into a “singing-ecstasy” culminating in general hand-shaking. Sometimes they were given forth by a preacher, who had a sense of rhythm, under the excitement of his preaching and the agitation of his audience. Hymns were also composed more deliberately out of the meeting, and taught to the people or lined out from the pulpit.
Collections of camp meeting hymns were eventually published, which served both to propagate tunes and texts that were commonly used, and to document the most commonly sung tunes and texts. Example hymnals include The Pilgrams’ Songster (sic); or, A Choice Collection of Spiritual Songs (1828), The Camp-meeting Chorister (1830) and The Golden Harp (1857).