Spirituals (or Negro spirituals) are songs which were created by African slaves in America.
Terminology and origin
The term spiritual is derived from spiritual song. The King James Bible's translation of Ephesians V.19 is: "Speaking to yourselves in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody in your heart to the Lord." The term spiritual song was often used in the white Christian community through the 19th century (and indeed much earlier), but not the term spiritual. Negro spiritual first appears in print in the 1860s, where slaves are described as using the noun spiritual for religious songs sung sitting or standing in place, and spiritual shouts for more dance-like music. 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 is often broadened to include subsequent arrangements into more standard American hymnodic styles, and to include post-emancipation songs with stylistic similarities to the original Negro spirituals.
Although numerous rhythmically and sonic elements of Negro spirituals can be traced to African sources, nonetheless it is a fact that Negro spirituals are a musical form that is indigenous and specific to the religious experience in the United States of Africans transported from Africa. They are a result of the interaction of African religious elements with music and religion derived from Europe. 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 American, did not evolve this form.
Negro spirituals were primarily expressions of religious faith. They may also have served as socio-political protests veiled as assimilation to white American culture. They were originated by enslaved African-Americans
in the United States
was introduced to the British colonies in the early seventeenth century, and enslaved people largely replaced indentured servants
as an economic labor force during the 17th century. 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 United States Constitution
Suppression of indigenous religion
During slavery in the United States, there were systematic efforts to de-Africanize the captive Black workforce. Enslaved people were forbidden from speaking their native languages.
Because they were unable to express themselves freely in ways that were spiritually meaningful to them, enslaved Africans often held secret religious services. During these “bush meetings,” worshippers were free to engage in African religious rituals such as spiritual possession, speaking in tongues and shuffling in counterclockwise ring shouts to communal shouts and chants. It was there also that enslaved Africans further crafted the impromptu musical expression of field songs into the so-called "line singing" and intricate, multi-part harmonies of struggle and overcoming, faith, forbearance and hope that have come to be known as Negro spirituals.
Restrictions were placed on the religious expression of slaves. Rows of benches in places of worship discouraged congregants from spontaneously jumping to their feet and dancing. The use of musical instruments of any kind often was forbidden, and slaves were ordered to desist from the "paganism" of the practice of spiritual possession.
Replacement with Christianity
Nonetheless, the Christian principles that teach those who suffer on earth hold a special place with God in heaven undoubtedly spoke to the enslaved who saw this as hope and could certainly relate to the suffering of Jesus. For this reason many slaves genuinely embraced Christianity.
While slaveowners used Christianity to teach enslaved Africans to be long-suffering, forgiving and obedient to their masters, as practiced by the enslaved, it became something of a liberation theology. The story of Moses and The Exodus of the "children of Israel" crossing the Jordan River, and the idea of an Old Testament God who struck down the enemies of His "chosen people" resonated deeply with the enslaved ("He's a battleaxe in time of war and a shelter in a time of storm"). The lyrics of Christian spirituals reference symbolic aspects of Biblical images such as these, in songs like Michael Row the Boat Ashore. In Black hands and hearts, Christian theology became an instrument of liberation.
Claims of coded messages
Many internet sources and popular books claim 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. This particular song allegedly recommends leaving dry land and taking to the water as a strategy to throw pursuing bloodhounds off one's trail. “The Gospel Train
” and “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot
” are equally 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. These claims, as popular as they are, do not hold up to reasoned and informed inquiry; for example, the sources provide no firsthand evidence of the use of coded songs or distort the firsthand accounts that are available (e.g. Frederick Douglass) in order to support their claims.
Jubilee Singers of Fisk University
In the 1850s, Reverend Alexander Reid, superintendent of the Spencer Academy in the old Choctaw Nation, hired some enslaved Africans from the Indians for some work around the school. He heard two of them, "Uncle Wallace
" and "Aunt Minerva" Willis, singing religious songs they had composed. Among these songs 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. Although they were singing mostly popular music of the day, Reid thought the songs he remembered from his time in the Choctaw Nation would be 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 titled Jubilee Songs as Sung by the Jubilee Singers of Fisk University
, by Thomas F. Steward. Later these religious songs became known as "Black spirituals"
to distinguish this music from the spiritual music of other peoples. Wallace Willis died in 1883 or 84.
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, but an 1881 performance review said that "they have lost the wild rhythms, the barbarity, the passion." Fifty years on, 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
A group of lyrics to Negro spirituals was published by Col. Thomas Wentworth Higginson, who served as the commander of a regiment of former slaves in the Civil War, in an article in The Atlantic Monthly and subsequently included in his 1869 memoir Army Life in a Black Regiment (1869).
- of "My Good Lord Done Been Here", from the Library of Congress' John and Ruby Lomax 1939 Southern States Recording Trip; performed by Aunt Florida Hampton on May 29, 1939, at the home of Mr. and Mrs. P.W. Tartt in Livingston, Alabama
- of "Roll the Old Chariot Along", spiritual and sea shanty from the Library of Congress'
- Gordon Collection; performed by unknown persons in the Bay Area of California in the early 1920s
- of "Deep Down in My Heart", from the Library of Congress' Gordon Collection; performed by W. M. Givens in Darien, Georgia, on about March 19, 1926