African American spirituals, a type of religious folksong, are about faith, sorrow, hope and struggles. These spirituals were important to American slaves, who used this form of song to hold onto hope through Jesus Christ and were later used during the Civil Rights Movement, according to the Library of Congress.
One famous African American is spiritual, "Swing Low, Sweet Chariot" written by Wallis Willis. Some historians suggest that the lyrics were used as code among slaves, communicating about escaping to Canada, according to USA Today. Additionally, "Swing Low, Sweet Chariot" is about holding onto hope that help would come to release the slaves. Spirituals were popular among slaves, who sung them as lullabies and children's play songs.
"Follow the Drinking Gourd," another African American spiritual, is thought the be a coded song. The lyrics, interpreted to be directions out of southern slave states, references "the drinking gourd," which could be a reference to the Big Dipper, a constellation that points north. References to the Underground Railroad are a common theme of slave spirituals.
During the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 1960s, activists used Gospel songs and spirituals to support the effort of the movement. Like the spirituals of the past, activists performed these songs unrehearsed. Civil Rights leaders changed the lyrics of traditional spirituals to make them relevant to the time.
Christian hymns influenced African American spirituals. African slaves were exposed to Christianity and the Bible and found their experiences to be similar to the struggles of Jesus Christ.