“Let’s sing that chorus one more time!” the worship leader calls out. You sing it again, this time louder and with more energy, “amening” the truth of the song with your voice along with everyone around you. In today’s music world, the best part of a song is often imbedded in the chorus or refrain. Songwriters constantly are looking for that perfect match of lyrics and music, that perfect “hook” that will help it endure the test of time.
But things weren’t always this way. The idea of a chorus/refrain actually developed from a particular moment in American church history. And you might be surprised when you find out.
At the beginning of the 1800s, ministers of Methodist, Presbyterian, Baptist, and other denominations perceived a need in the western frontier. Settlers, slaves, and natives were isolated and uneducated, without access to churches or preaching. Moral decay ensued, for many had never even heard the gospel.
Surprisingly, it was the Presbyterians, not the Baptists, who took this evangelistic opportunity most seriously (the Methodists would later continue the tradition after other denominations had moved on). James McGready, a Presbyterian minister, was the central figure in the resultant camp meeting revivals that swept the western frontier. At that time, the Ohio River Valley formed the western frontier. Camp meeting revivals began primarily in the heart of Kentucky, then spread to Tennessee, Ohio, and beyond. Ministers from various denominations would team up to clear out a large tract of land and set up multiple preaching stands. As many as four preachers at a time would preach simultaneously in the open air at a distance from each other, and crowds would gather around the preaching stand of their choice to listen. Attenders frequently traveled long distances from surrounding regions, so they would set up camp around the perimeter of the meeting area and remain for days, even weeks, hence the term “camp meeting revivals.”
“The most famous, and perhaps the biggest, camp meeting was held at Cane Ridge, Kentucky, in August of 1801. The idea caught on quickly, so that within five years of the Cane Ridge revival camp meetings had spread throughout the frontier areas of the Southwest and Northeast, and had even been exported to Great Britain. It is estimated that by 1820 almost 1000 such meetings had been held” (Music & Westermeyer, 60).
Some call this time period the “Second Great Awakening” (the first being led by Jonathan Edwards and George Whitefield), while others dismiss it due to the associated emotional fervor. These frontier camp meetings differed vastly from the more stately, formal services of established east coast churches. Critics often point out “extreme physical manifestations such as shouting, falling on the ground in a trance-like state, uncontrollable laughter, or barking like a dog” (Music & Westermeyer, 60).
As should be expected, the camp meeting revivals developed their own distinctive genre of music. Ministers knew their listeners were largely uneducated, simple-minded people, and they wanted to give these people a means of expressing the joy of their newfound revival. Tune books were not necessary, because most people could not read words, much less music. It was impractical to carry thousands of tune books to the wilderness to distribute to people who could not use them. As such, the earliest lyrics from this time were printed in “songsters,” free of any musical notation, most likely to aid ministers at the camp meetings who “lined out” (sang the words for the congregation to repeat back) the songs.
While ministers often composed these camp meeting songs themselves, we do have records of other possible origins. John Adam Granade (1763-1807), a Methodist from North Carolina called “Wild Man of the Woods,” printed The Pilgrim’s Songster in Lexington, Kentucky in 1804. In the same year, Caleb Jarvis Taylor (1763-approx. 1810) released his Spiritual Songs, also from Lexington. The title Spiritual Songs highlights the interesting fact that camp meeting songs soon came to be called “spiritual songs.” These “spiritual songs” spread as the popularity of camp meetings grew, and soon found their way into many notated collections such as Ingalls’s The Christian Harmony (1805), Wyeth’s Repository of Sacred Music, Part Second (1813), Davisson’s Supplement to the Kentucky Harmony (1820),Walker’s The Southern Harmony (1835), White and King’s The Sacred Harp (1844), McCurry’s The Social Harp (1855), and Leavitt’s The Christian Lyre.
Hymnologists agree the refrain or chorus is the most important element of a camp meeting song.  What many people do not realize is how camp meeting songs popularized the use of a chorus or refrain. Ministers knew these people needed something simple, so a minister might line out “Gimme that ol’ time religion, gimme that ol’ time religion, gimme that ol’ time religion, it’s good enough for me.” Frontier settlers could pick the words and tune up very easily, and then simply change a key word for each verse, “It was good for my mother/father/sister/brother, it’s good enough for me.” Sometimes the crowd might respond with a simple repeated refrain, much like what we read in Psalm 136 (“for his steadfast love endures forever”).
But ministers became concerned, and rightly so, that people needed more substance. They began to sing complete stanzas to popular hymns by authors like Watts or Wesley, then allow the congregation to respond with a “tag-line” that often did not completely fit the context of the original hymn. These “tag-lines” were predecessors to the “refrain” we find in later gospel songs.
One of the best examples of this method is the chorus often attached to Robert Robinson’s Come Thou Fount of Every Blessing. Consider the lyrics,
(sung by minister)
Come, thou fount of ev’ry blessing,
Tune my heart to sing thy grace;
Streams of mercy never ceasing,
Call for songs of loudest praise.
(sung by camp meeting attenders)
I am bound for the kingdom,
Will you go to glory with me?
Hallelujah, praise the Lord.
The text of the chorus has almost nothing in common with the stanza, but it gave camp meeting attenders an opportunity to affirm the truths of the song in terms they understood. We should not be confused and think that every chorus of every song from the 19th century has it’s roots in camp meeting choruses—but neither should we overlook the impact of the camp meeting genre. Camp meeting spiritual songs cemented in American church music the idea of the chorus or refrain.
While some may disagree, I believe this development, overall, was a good one. Ministers on the American frontier knew their audience’s greatest need was the gospel of Jesus Christ. The emotional responses of some in the Second Great Awakening does not nullify the spread of the gospel to the many. Frontier preachers didn’t muddle the message or over-complicate it by trying to force east coast hymnody, with it’s profound concepts and refined lyrics, upon the western frontier. They used simple tag-lines that gave people an opportunity to sing about their faith.
That’s not to say the western frontier would have been right to stay as it was. Theological depth, musical training, literacy, and the rest could come later. But the most urgent need was, and still is, that countless, priceless souls are at stake. If we are not careful, arrogance can creep into our music ministries to the extent that we actually hinder the progress of the gospel in our church services. The prominence of choruses and refrains in our hymnody reminds us that, while maturing our church music is a great endeavor, we must make the gospel our first priority, even as Christ himself commanded (Matt. 28:19-20).
A Survey of Christian Hymnody by William Reynolds & Milburn Price, 5th edition revised and enlarged by David Music & Milburn Price (Hope Publishing, 2010).
Church Music in America by John Ogasapian (Mercer University Press, Macon, GA, 2007).
Church Music in the United States by David W. Music and Paul Westermeyer (MorningStar Music Publishers, 2014).
 Technically a refrain repeats a key phrase or melodic material from the stanza. A chorus, on the other hand, introduces material that is more distinct from each stanza of a song.