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Spirituals (or Negro spirituals)[1][2] 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.[3] 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.[4]

Terminology and origin[]

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."[5] Slave Songs of the United States, the first major collection of Negro spirituals, was published in 1867.[6]

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.[7]

Religious significance[]

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.

Suppression of indigenous religion[]

See also: Traditional African religion

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.[8] 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.[9] 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.[10] During these meetings, worshipers would sing, chant, dance and sometimes enter ecstatic trances.[5] 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.[11] They brought with them from Africa long-standing religious traditions that highlighted the importance of storytelling.[12] 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.[13]

Negro spirituals may also have served as socio-political protests veiled as assimilation to the white American culture.[14]

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.

Christianity's influence[]

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.[9]

From 1800 to 1825 slaves were exposed to the religious music of camp meetings on the ever-expanding frontier.[6] Spirituals were based on Christian psalms and hymns and merged with African music styles and secular American music forms.[3] 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.[15] 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.[16] 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.[17]

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.[10] 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."[18]

Alternative interpretations[]

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.[19] "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.[20] "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.[21]

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.[22][23]

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.[24]

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.[25]

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.[26]

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."[27]


"The African American spiritual (also called the Negro Spiritual) constitutes one of the largest and most significant forms of American folksong."[5] Spirituals were sung as lullabies and play songs. Some spirituals were adapted as work songs.[9] Antonin Dvorak chose spiritual music to represent America in his Symphony From the New World.[10]

Spirituals remain a mainstay particularly in small black churches, often Baptist or Pentecostal, in the deep South.[28]


Jubilee Singers of Fisk University[]

See also Fisk Jubilee Singers

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.[6] 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 ... [T]hey 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.

Other collections[]

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[18] and subsequently included in his 1869 memoir Army Life in a Black Regiment (1869).[29]

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.[28]

See also[]

  • History of slavery in the United States
  • Deep River Boys
  • Religious music
  • African-American music
  • Gospel music


  1. "Negro Spiritual Singers". New Deal Network. Retrieved 21 March 2015.
  2. "5th Annual Negro Spirituals Heritage Day". All About Jazz. 16 June 2008. Retrieved 21 March 2015.
  3. 3.0 3.1 "Celebrating Black Music Month", National Museum of African American History and Culture
  4. "Why "Negro Spiritual"… A Note About Negro Spirituals". The "Negro Spiritual" Scholarship Foundation. Retrieved 21 March 2015. In the United States we cannot seem to get enough of Negro spirituals; contemporary composers, arrangers and vocalists continue to explore and enliven this unique genre.
  5. 5.0 5.1 5.2 "African American Spirituals", Library of Congress
  6. 6.0 6.1 6.2 Faigin, Tom. "Negro Spirituals: Songs of Survival"
  7. Murray, Albert (1976). Stomping the Blues. New York: Da Capo. pp. 64–65. ISBN 0-306-80362-3.
  8. Maffly-Kipp, Laurie. "African-American Slaves and Christianity", National Humanities Center
  9. 9.0 9.1 9.2 "African American Spirituals", Spotlight on Music, McGraw-Hill
  10. 10.0 10.1 10.2 Pershey, Monica Gordon. "African American spiritual music: A historical perspective", The Dragon Lode, Vol. 18 • No. 2 • Spring, 2000
  11. Faw, Bob. "African-American Spirituals", Religion & Ethics Newsweekly, PBS, May 4, 2012
  12. Abernethy, Bob. "African-American Spirituals", Religion & Ethics Newsweekly, PBS, August 26, 2005
  13. Van Leeuwen, David. "African-American Spirituals in the Slave Community", National Humaniies Center
  14. "About the African-American Spiritual", CSO Spiritual Ensemble
  15. Southern, Eileen. The Music of Black Americans. New York: W.W. Norton and Company. pp. 172–177. ISBN 0-393-95279-7. Cite has empty unknown parameter: |coauthors= (help)
  16. "History". Retrieved 2010-02-15.
  17. Smith-Christopher, Daniel L. "River Jordan in Early African American Spirituals", Bible Odyssey, National Endowment for the Humanities
  18. 18.0 18.1 Negro Spirituals by Thomas Wentworth Higginson, The Atlantic, June 1867.
  19. Coded Slave Songs
  21. "'Follow the Drinking Gourd'—African American Spiritual", Houghton Mifflin
  22. Kelley, James. Song, Story, or History: Resisting Claims of a Coded Message in the African American Spiritual "Follow the Drinking Gourd". The Journal of Popular Culture 41.2 (April 2008): 262-80.
  23. Bresler, Joel. "Follow the Drinking Gourd: A Cultural History". Retrieved 2008-05-05.
  24. Frederick Douglass (1855). "My Bondage and My Freedom". Project Gutenberg. Retrieved 6 June 2013.
  25. Brown, Sterling Allen (Winter 1953). "Negro Folk Expression: Spirituals, Seculars, Ballads and Work Songs". University of Illinois, Department of English. Retrieved June 6, 2013.
  26. Barker, Thomas. “Spatial Dialectics: Intimations of Freedom in Antebellum Slave Song.” Journal of Black Studies 46, no. 4 (2015) pp.363-364
  27. Barker, Thomas. “Spatial Dialectics: Intimations of Freedom in Antebellum Slave Song.” Journal of Black Studies 46, no. 4 (2015)
  28. 28.0 28.1 Banks, Adelle M., "Arthur Jones shares spirituals with kids to teach history and heritage", Religious News Service, August 6, 2005
  29. Higginson, Thomas Wentworth (2001-04-01). Army Life in a Black Regiment. ISBN 978-1-58218-359-6. Retrieved 2008-03-03.

Further reading[]

  • Ball, Edward, Slaves In The Family, Ballantine Books, New York 1998. See chapter 17 which references the Society for Preservation of Spirituals.
  • Baraka, Amiri (1999). Blues People: Negro Music in White America. Harper Perennial. ISBN 978-0688184742.
  • Barker, Thomas (2015). "Spatial Dialectics: Intimations of Freedom in Antebellum Slave Song." Journal of Black Studies 46, no. 4 (2015).
  • Barton, William Eleazar (1899/1972), Old Plantation Hymns: A Collection of Hitherto Unpublished Melodies of the Slave and the Freeman, with Historical and Descriptive Notes, reprint, New York: AMS Press.
  • Bauch, Marc A.: Extending the Canon: Thomas Wentworth Higginson and African-American Spirituals (Munich, Germany, 2013).
  • Nash, Elizabeth (2007). "Autobiographical Reminiscences of African-American Classical Singers, 1853-Present". Lewiston: Edwin Mellen Press. ISBN 0-7734-5250-8
  • Work, John W., compiler (1940), American Negro Songs and Spirituals: a Comprehensive Collection of 230 Folk Songs, Religious and Secular, with a Foreword. New York: Bonanza Books. N.B.: Includes commentary on the repertory and the words with the music (harmonized) of the spirituals and other songs anthologized.

External links[]

Audio samples[]

The Spiritual music years[]



  1. Sprituals Paul Robeson



  1. Black Nativity Various Artists
  2. He's Got the Whole World in His Hands Marian Anderson

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