Cultural Origins.... Late 1970s late - Southern United States
Stylistic Origins.... Work Songs, Christian Hymns, Corn Ditties
Sub-Genres & International Influence..... Vocals, Blues, Gospel Music
The story of the negro spirituals is closely linked to the History of African Americans, with its three milestones:
1865: The abolition of slavery
1925: The Black Renaissance
1985: The first Dr Martin Luther King’s Day
Spirituals (or Negro spirituals) are generally Christian songs that were created by African slaves in the United States. Spirituals were originally an oral tradition that imparted Christian values while also describing the hardships of slavery. Although spirituals were originally unaccompanied monophonic (unison) songs, they are best known today in harmonized choral arrangements. This historic group of uniquely American songs is now recognized as a distinct genre of music.
The term, "spiritual", is derived from "spiritual song", from the King James Bible's translation of Ephesians 5:19, which says: "Speaking to yourselves in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody in your heart to the Lord." Slave Songs of the United States, the first major collection of Negro spirituals, was published in 1867.
Musicologist George Pullen Jackson extended the term "spiritual" to a wider range of folk hymnody, as in his 1938 book, White Spirituals in the Southern Uplands, but this does not appear to have been widespread usage previously. The term, however, has often been broadened to include subsequent arrangements into more standard European-American hymnodic styles, and to include post-emancipation songs with stylistic similarities to the original Negro spirituals.
Although numerous rhythmical and sonic elements of Negro spirituals can be traced to African sources, Negro spirituals are a musical form that is indigenous and specific to the religious experience in the United States of Africans and their descendants. They are a result of the interaction of music and religion from Africa with music and religion of European origin. Further, this interaction occurred only in the United States. Africans who converted to Christianity in other parts of the world, even in the Caribbean and Latin America, did not evolve this form.
Negro spirituals were primarily expressions of religious faith. Some may also have served as socio-political protests veiled as assimilation to white American culture. They originated among enslaved Africans in the United States. Slavery was introduced to the British colonies in the early 17th century, and enslaved people largely replaced indentured servants as an economic labor force during the 17th century. In the United States, these people would remain in bondage for the entire 18th century and much of the 19th century. Most were not fully emancipated until the ratification of the Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution in 1865.
Almost all the first Africans who arrived in the New World were slaves. They came from several regions of the African West Coast. Their ways of living were described by slaves themselves, in some narratives. They had to work either in plantations or in town.
Slavery was an important issue facing Churches, as slaves were allowed to meet for Christian services. Some Christian ministers, such as J. D. Long, wrote against slavery. Rural slaves used to stay after the regular worship services, in churches or in plantation “praise houses”, for singing and dancing. But, slaveholders did not allow dancing and playing drums, as usual in Africa. They also had meetings at secret places (“camp meetings”, “bush meetings”), because they needed to meet one another and share their joys, pains and hopes. In rural meetings, thousands slaves were gathered and listened to itinerant preachers, and sang spirituals, for hours. In the late 1700s, they sang the precursors of spirituals, which were called “corn ditties”.
So, in rural areas, spirituals were sung, mainly outside of churches. In cities, about 1850, the Protestant City-Revival Movement created a new song genre, which was popular; for revival meetings organized by this movement, temporary tents were erected in stadiums, where the attendants could sing.
At church, hymns and psalms were sung during services. Some of them were transformed into songs of a typical African American form: they are "Dr Watts”.
The lyrics of negro spirituals were tightly linked with the lives of their authors: slaves. While work songs dealt only with their daily life, spirituals were inspired by the message of Jesus Christ and his Good News (Gospel) of the Bible, “You can be saved”. They are different from hymns and psalms, because they were a way of sharing the hard condition of being a slave.
Many slaves in town and in plantations tried to run to a “free country”, that they called “my home” or “Sweet Canaan, the Promised Land”. This country was on the Northern side of Ohio River, that they called “Jordan”. Some negro spirituals refer to the Underground Railroad, an organization for helping slaves to run away.
During slavery and afterwards, workers were allowed to sing songs during their working time. This was the case when they had to coordinate their efforts for hauling a fallen tree or any heavy load. For example, prisoners used to sing "chain gang" songs, when they worked on the road or some construction. But some "drivers" also allowed slaves to sing "quiet" songs, if they were not apparently against slaveholders. Such songs could be sung either by only one or by several slaves. They were used for expressing personal feeling, and for cheering one another.
The Underground Railroad (UGRR) helped slaves to run to free a country. A fugitive could use several ways. First, they had to walk at night, using hand lights and moonlight. When needed, they walked (“waded”) in water, so that dogs could not smell their tracks. Second, they jumped into chariot, where they could hide and ride away. These chariots stopped at some “stations”, but this word could mean any place where slaves had to go for being taken in charge.
Slaves were forbidden from speaking their native languages, and were generally converted to Christianity. While some slave owners believed that Christian slaves would be more docile, others came to feel that stories of Moses leading the Israelites out of bondage were counterproductive. Forced conversion only worked to a point since church attendance might be required, but control could not extend to thoughts and feelings. Some slaves became Christians voluntarily, either because it helped them endure hardships or because membership may have offered other benefits. Many of the Slaves turned towards the Baptist or Methodist churches.
In some places enslaved Africans were permitted, or even encouraged, to hold their own prayer meetings. Because they were unable to express themselves freely in ways that were spiritually meaningful to them, religious services were, at times, the only place slaves could legitimately congregate, socialize, and safely express feelings. During these meetings, worshipers would sing, chant, dance and sometimes enter ecstatic trances. Along with spirituals, shouts also emerged in the Praise Houses. Shouts begin slowly with the shuffling of feet and clapping of hands (but the feet never cross because that was seen as dancing, which was forbidden within the church).
Drums were used as they had been in Africa, for communication. When the connection between drumming, communication, and resistance was eventually made drums were forbidden. Slaves introduced a number of new instruments to America: the bones, body percussion, and an instrument variously called the bania, banju, or banjar, a precursor to the banjo but without frets. They drew on native rhythms and their African heritage. They brought with them from Africa long-standing religious traditions that highlighted the importance of storytelling. Music was an essential element in communicating identity, shared social mores, traditional customs, and ethnic history. The primary function of the spirituals was as communal songs sung in a religious gathering, performed in a call-response pattern reminiscent of West African traditional religions.
Negro spirituals may also have served as socio-political protests veiled as assimilation to the white American culture.
Several traditions rooted in Africa continue to the present day in African-American spiritual practices. Examples include the "call and response" style of preaching in which the speaker speaks for an interval and the congregation responds in unison in a continual pattern throughout the sermon. Speaking in tongues is also a persistent practice, as is "getting happy." Getting happy involves achieving a trance-like state and can be characterized by anything from jumping in one place repeatedly, running through the sanctuary, raising hands and arms in the air, shouting traditional praise phrases, or being "slain in the spirit" (fainting). In spirituals, there also rose what is known as the "straining preacher" sound where the preacher, during song, literally strains the voice to produce a unique tone. This is used throughout recorded spirituals, blues, and jazz music. The locations and the era may be different; but the same emphasis on combining sound, movement, emotion, and communal interaction into one focus on faith and its role in overcoming struggles, whether as an individual or a people group, remain the same.
Christian hymns and songs were very influential on the writing of African-American spirituals, especially those from the "Great Awakening" of the 1730s. As Africans were exposed to stories from the Bible, they began to see parallels to their own experiences. The story of the exile of the Jews and their captivity in Babylon, resonated with their own captivity.
From 1800 to 1825 slaves were exposed to the religious music of camp meetings on the ever-expanding frontier. Spirituals were based on Christian psalms and hymns and merged with African music styles and secular American music forms. Spirituals were not simply different versions of hymns or Bible stories, but rather a creative altering of the material; new melodies and music, refashioned text, and stylistic differences helped to set apart the music as distinctly African-American. However, spirituals were not composed at first by the blacks. Because of the spontaneity of the music, whites could never accurately note take what was occurring.
The lyrics of Christian spirituals reference symbolic aspects of Biblical images such as Moses and Israel's Exodus from Egypt in songs such as "Michael Row the Boat Ashore". There is also a duality in the lyrics of spirituals. They communicated many Christian ideals while also communicating the hardship that was a result of being an African American slave. The spiritual was often directly tied to the composer's life. It was a way of sharing religious, emotional, and physical experience through song.
The river Jordan in traditional African American religious song became a symbolic borderland not only between this world and the next. It could also symbolize travel to the north and freedom or could signify a proverbial border from the status of slavery to living free.
Syncopation, or ragged time, was a natural part of spiritual music. The rhythms of Protestant hymns were transformed and the songs were played on African-inspired instruments. During the Civil War, Colonel Thomas Wentworth Higginson wrote down some of the spirituals he heard in camp. "Almost all their songs were thoroughly religious in their tone, ...and were in a minor key, both as to words and music."
Some scholarship claims that songs such as "Wade in the Water" contained explicit instructions to fugitive slaves on how to avoid capture, and on which routes to take to successfully make their way to freedom. "Wade in the Water" allegedly recommends leaving dry land and taking to the water as a strategy to throw pursuing bloodhounds off one's trail. "The Gospel Train", "Song of the Free", and "Swing Low, Sweet Chariot" are likewise supposed to contain veiled references to the Underground Railroad, and many sources assert that "Follow the Drinking Gourd" contained a coded map to the Underground Railroad.
The authenticity of such claims has been challenged as speculative, and critics like James Kelley have pointed to the apparent lack of primary source material in support of them.
However, there is a firmer consensus that the recurring theme of "freedom" in the Biblical references was understood as a reference to the slaves' own desire for escape from bondage. Frederick Douglass, himself a former slave who became one of the leading 19th century African-American literary and cultural figures, emphasized the dual nature of the lyrics of spirituals when he recalled in Chapter VI of his My Bondage and My Freedom:
I did not, when a slave, understand the deep meanings of those rude, and apparently incoherent songs. I was myself within the circle, so that I neither saw or heard as those without might see and hear. They told a tale which was then altogether beyond my feeble comprehension; they were tones, loud, long and deep, breathing the prayer and complaint of souls boiling over with the bitterest anguish. Every tone was a testimony against slavery, and a prayer to God for deliverance from chains. The hearing of those wild notes always depressed my spirits, and filled my heart with ineffable sadness. The mere recurrence, even now, afflicts my spirit, and while I am writing these lines, my tears are falling. To those songs I trace my first glimmering conceptions of the dehumanizing character of slavery. I can never get rid of that conception. Those songs still follow me, to deepen my hatred of slavery, and quicken my sympathies for my brethren in bonds.
Noted African American literary critic Sterling Allen Brown, who had interviewed former slaves and their children, was firm in his assertion in a 1953 article in Phylon that Some scholars who have found parallels between the words of Negro and white spirituals would have us believe that when the Negro sang of freedom, he meant only what the whites meant, namely freedom from sin. Free, individualistic whites on the make in a prospering civilization, nursing the American dream, could well have felt their only bondage to be that of sin, and freedom to be religious salvation. But with the drudgery, the hardships, the auction-block, the slave-mart, the shackles, and the lash so literally present in the Negro's experience, it is hard to imagine why for the Negro they would remain figurative. The scholars certainly do not make it clear, but rather take refuge in such dicta as: "The slave did not contemplate his low condition." Are we to believe that the slave singing "I been rebuked, I been scorned; done had a hard time sho's you bawn," referred to his being outside of the true religion? Ex-slaves, of course, inform us differently. The spirituals speak up strongly for freedom not only from sin (dear as that freedom was to the true believer) but from physical bondage. Those attacking slavery as such had to be as rare as anti-Hitler marching songs in occupied France. But there were oblique references. Frederick Douglass has told us of the double-talk of the spirituals: Canaan, for instance, stood for Canada; and over and beyond hidden satire the songs also were grapevines for communications. Harriet Tubman, herself called the Moses of her people, has told us that Go Down Moses was tabu in the slave states, but the people sang it nonetheless.
More recently, black music critic Thomas Barker has critiqued definitions of freedom that separate its spiritual and material elements:
Following George P. Rawick’s 1968 article on “The Historical Roots of Black Liberation,” academic studies on the antebellum south have developed a more nuanced outlook on slave psychology. “Unless the slave is simultaneously Sambo and revolutionary,” Rawick (2010) writes, “[h]e can only be a wooden man, a theoretical abstraction” (pp. 31-32). Within the liberal academy, this dialectical understanding of slave consciousness effectively broke the back of the simplistic Sambo-Revolutionary dichotomy, giving way to a plethora of treatises that examine the ways that slaves mediated the tension between passivity and insurrection (see Blassingame, 1979; Genovese, 1974; Levine, 1977; Stuckey, 1987). However, studies that examine the role played by music in articulating the concept of freedom have frequently reproduced this problematic binary. With those who see slave song as teaching freedom in the afterlife in one camp, and those who see it as a material call to arms in the other, this dichotomy ill befits Rawick’s multifaceted analysis.
Consistent with the beliefs of slave religion, which saw the material and the spiritual as part of an intrinsic unity, "freedom", it is agued, should be seen as simultaneously spiritual and material. This broadly Hegelian-Marxist approach argues that the concrete experience of freedom (no matter how limited) was only possible because of the existence freedom as an idea, and, conversely, that freedom as an idea was only possible because it was available as concrete experience: "the ability of slaves to imagine freedom ('le conçu') was contingent upon their being able to experience freedom, and... the slave's capacity to experience freedom ('le vecu') was conditional upon their being able to imagine it."
Slavery was abolished in 1865. Then, some African Americans were allowed to go to school and be graduated. At Fisk University, one of the first universities for African American, in Nashville (Tennessee), some educators decided to raise funds for supporting their institution. So, some educators and students made tours in the New World and in Europe, and sang negro spirituals (Fisk Jubilee Singers). Other Black universities had also singers of negro spirituals: Tuskegee Institute, etc.
Just after 1865, most of African Americans did not want to remember the songs they sung in hard days of slavery. It means that even when ordinary people sang negro spirituals, they were not proud to do so.
In the 1890s, Holiness and Sanctified churches appeared, of which was the Church of God in Christ. In these churches, the influence of African traditions was in evidence. These churches were heirs to shouts, hand clapping, foot-stomping and jubilee songs, like it was in plantation “praise houses”.
At the same time, some composers arranged negro spirituals in a new way, which was similar to the European classical music. Some artists, mainly choruses, went abroad (in Europe and Africa) and sang negro spirituals. At the same time, ministers like Charles A. Tindley, in Philadelphia, and their churches sang exciting church songs that they copyrighted.
In the 1920s, the Black Renaissance was an artist movement concerning poetry and music. “It was an evidence of a renewed race-spirit that consciously and proudly sets itself apart”, explained Alan Locke. So, the use of dialect was taboo, in this movement. The “race-spirit” infused the work of musicians and writers like Langston Hughes. For the first time, African Americans realized that their roots were deep in the land of their birth.
The Black Renaissance had some influence on the way of singing and interpreting negro spirituals. First, the historical meaning of these songs were put forward. Then, singers were pushed to be more educated.
For example, in early Twentieth century, boys used to sing negro spirituals in schoolyards. Their way of singing was not sophisticated. But educators thought that negro spirituals are musical pieces, which must be interpreted as such. New groups were formed, such as the Highway QC’s (QC : Quincy College), and sung harmonized negro spirituals.
This constant improvement of negro spirituals gave birth to another type of Christian songs. Thesewere inspired by the Bible (mainly the Gospel) and related to the daily life. Thomas A. Dorsey was the first who composed such new songs. He called them Gospel songs, but some people say “Dorseys”. He is considered as being the Father of Gospel music.
It is of interest to see that, during this period, African Americans began to leave the South and went North. Then, Gospel songs were more and more popular in Northern towns, like Chicago.
Between 1915 and 1925, many African American singers, like Paul Robeson, performed either at church or on stage, or even in movies, then negro spirituals were considered mainly as traditional songs. In the late 1930s, Sister Rosetta Tharpe dared sing Gospel songs in a nightclub. This was the very start of singing Gospel songs in many kinds of places: churches, theaters, concert halls. The number of quartets was high, at that time.
At the same time, some preachers and their congregations were also famous; some of them recorded negro spirituals and Gospel songs. Ministers, like James Cleveland, made tours with their choruses, in the United States and abroad.
In the late 1950s and early 1960s, before and during rallies for Civil Rights, demonstrators sang negro spirituals. For example, “We Shall Overcome” and “This Little Light of Mine” were popular.
In the 1850s, Reverend Alexander Reid, superintendent of the Spencer Academy in the old Choctaw Nation, hired some enslaved Africans from the Choctaws for some work around the school. He heard two of them, "Uncle Wallace" and "Aunt Minerva" Willis, singing religious songs that they had apparently composed. Among these were "Swing Low, Sweet Chariot", "Steal Away to Jesus", "The Angels are Coming", "I'm a Rolling", and "Roll, Jordan, Roll". Later, Reid, who left Indian Territory at the beginning of the Civil War, attended a musical program put on by a group of Negro singers from Fisk University in Nashville, Tennessee. They were singing mostly popular music of the day, and Reid thought the songs he remembered from his time in the Choctaw Nation would be at least as appropriate. He and his wife transcribed the songs of the Willises as they remembered them and sent them to Fisk University.
The Jubilee Singers put on their first performance singing the old captives' songs at a religious conference in 1871. The songs were first published in 1872 in a book entitled Jubilee Songs as Sung by the Jubilee Singers of Fisk University, by Theodore F. Seward. Wallace Willis died in 1883 or 1884.
In an attempt to raise money for Fisk University in Nashville, Tennessee, the Fisk Jubilee Singers gave concerts in Europe and America and helped make American Negro spirituals become extremely popular. It sent some of its students from the choir program to perform. Ultimately, this became a fad and caused spiritual music to become mainstream. However, these groups sang spirituals in the white, European style.
Over time, the pieces the Jubilee Singers performed came to be arranged and performed by trained musicians. In 1873, Mark Twain, whose father had owned slaves, found Fisk singing to be "in the genuine old way" he remembered from childhood. By contrast an anonymous 1881 review in the Peoria Journal said: "they have lost the wild rhythms, the barbaric melody, the passion. They smack of the North." Some fifty years later, Zora Neale Hurston in her 1938 book The Sanctified Church criticized Fisk singers, and similar groups at Tuskegee and Hampton, as using a "Glee Club style" that was "full of musicians' tricks" not to be found in the original Negro spirituals, urging readers to visit an "unfashionable Negro church" to experience real Negro spirituals.
A second important early collection of lyrics is Slave Songs of the United States by William Francis Allen, Charles Pickard Ware, and Lucy McKim Garrison (1867).
A group of lyrics to Negro spirituals was published by Colonel Thomas Wentworth Higginson, who commanded a regiment of former slaves during the Civil War, in an article in The Atlantic Monthly and subsequently included in his 1869 memoir Army Life in a Black Regiment (1869).
The latter half of the 20th century saw a resurgence of the Spiritual. This trend was impacted strongly by composers and musical directors such as Moses Hogan and Brazeal Dennard.
Dr. Arthur Jones founded "The Spirituals Project" at the University of Denver in 1999 to help keep alive the message and meaning of the songs that have moved from the fields of the South to the concert halls of the North.
"The African American spiritual (also called the Negro Spiritual) constitutes one of the largest and most significant forms of American folksong." Spirituals were sung as lullabies and play songs. Some spirituals were adapted as work songs. Antonin Dvorak chose spiritual music to represent America in his Symphony From the New World.
Spirituals remain a mainstay particularly in small black churches, often Baptist or Pentecostal, in the deep South.
The first Dr Martin Luther King's Day was celebrated in 1985; it became a national holiday in 1992. This event is a milestone in the history of African American: it shows that the African American community is a part of the US nation. This Day is included in the month, when Black History is celebrated through various events.
Since that first King’s Day, Negro spirituals have been considered as being pieces of the American heritage. So, they are often in the programs of events reminding Black History.
It appears that today everyone may perform Gospel music in the United States. The main issue is to know how to improve the African American integrity in singing negro spirituals and other Christian songs.