African American Spirituals
Background and History
African American spirituals grew out of the experiences of
enslaved peoples from western and central African countries,
beginning in Colonial times in North America. When Africans
were captured and brought to the New World (Caribbean islands)
to work as slaves, beginning in the 1500s, they were torn
from their communities and cultures. They were deprived of
their freedom and forced to work in a foreign land. Africans
who worked on plantations and served in the houses of people
of European descent in North America lost their spiritual
connection with Africa. Many Africans embraced aspects of
Christianity, the religion of their European owners.
Slaves owned by Christians in Colonial North America were
forbidden to practice any religion but Christianity. In fact,
church service attendance was compulsory for many slaves.
The language of the owner was the only language permitted,
whether in the fields or in church meetings. As Africans were
exposed to stories from the Bible, they began to see parallels
to their own experiences. In the story of the exile of the
Jews and their captivity in Babylon, for example, they saw
a mirror of their own captivity. The story of David and Goliath
showed that the weak could overcome the mighty. The story
of Jesus as messiah offered slaves a dream of salvation and
gave them a vision of heaven and hope for an end to their
own sorrows in life.
In Christian worship services, slaves recognized echoes of
their own religious music, which was forbidden. In the statements
of the minister and the responses of the congregation, they
heard the patterns of the call-and-response form that is natural
to much music of West Africa. Slaves also recognized the religious
ecstasy that often accompanied the singing of hymns.
Some enslaved Africans were permitted, or even encouraged,
to hold their own prayer meetings. These would often take
place after regular Sunday worship services and would be held
either in the church itself or in plantation "praise houses."
Many slaves held their own secret worship services, known
as "camp meetings" or "bush meetings," during which religious
expression was less inhibited.
Form and Adaptations in Spirituals
The verse-and-refrain form as well as the themes of the Bible-story
lyrics of many hymns fit well with the musical traditions
of African American slaves and were easily adapted to serve
their purposes. Words or whole verses were added as a means
to educate, communicate news or gossip, comfort mind and body,
reprimand, tell a story, or give a coded signal. Some spirituals
were adapted as work songs. Singing together in rhythm helped
laborers to pass the time or maintain the speed and coordination
of work movement when necessary. Some singers punctuated the
music with clapping hands and stamping feet since they were
not allowed to play instruments. (Enslaved Africans in North
America were generally not allowed to sing, play instruments,
or dance in the ways authentic to their African heritage.
This is why there were no drumming traditions among early
African Americans, though drumming traditions flourished and
evolved throughout African-based cultures in Latin America.)
When singing spirituals, slaves sometimes lowered the third,
fifth, or seventh notes of the scale, which resulted in "blue"
notes, to emphasize a sorrowful theme or verse. Syncopation,
the result of shifting the rhythmic emphasis off of the beat,
was another favorite method of adaptation among singers of
The Underground Railroad
Between about 1830 and 1860, some northern European Americans
who sympathized with slaves, along with escaped slaves like
Harriet Tubman (1820-1913), operated the Underground Railroad.
This was a secret escape route for slaves that stretched from
the southern slave states to "free states" in the north and
to Canada. This route was made possible by a series of "safe
houses" along the way. Singers of spirituals sometimes included
in the lyrics a message about an impending escape. The "River
Jordan" signaled the Ohio River. The land on the other side
of this river was free of slavery and was signaled by lyrics
sung about "Sweet Canaan, the Promised Land." The song "Wade
in the Water" told escaping slaves, who often traveled at
night, how to elude scent-tracking dogs by wading through
rivers and streams. "The Gospel Train" represented the Underground
Railway itself. Escape was seen as a holy quest, and the means
of escape was often referred to as "God's Chariot." Seen in
this way, "Swing Low, Sweet Chariot" carried a special, secret
meaning. "Follow the Drinking Gourd" referred to a constellation
followed by slaves traveling at night.
As early as the eighteenth century, visitors to the American
south remarked on the religious fervor of the slaves. In 1839,
an English actress named Fanny Kemble (who was married to
a slave owner) described her reaction upon hearing slaves
singing at a funeral service: "The whole congregation uplifted
their voices in a hymn, the first high wailing notes of which-sung
all in unison . sent a thrill through all my nerves."
After the Civil War, scholarly and musical interest turned
to the music and religious culture of former slaves. In 1867
William Francis Allen, Charles Pickard Ware, and Lucy McKim
Garrison published their collection, Slave Songs of the
United States, which includes such popular spirituals
as "Old Ship of Zion," "Lay This Body Down," "Michael, Row
the Boat Ashore," and "We Will March Through the Valley."
Such publications increased public interest in African American
spirituals. In 1871 the Fisk Jubilee Singers (from Fisk University
in Nashville, Tennessee) brought performances of spirituals
to an international audience. The choir's purpose was to raise
funds for the African American university. The money came
in slowly until the choir decided to sing spirituals in their
concerts. Their success was suddenly immense, and they went
on to perform concert arrangements of spirituals all over
the United States and Europe. The Hampton Singers from the
Hampton Institute in Virginia followed their example, and
the arrangements performed by the two groups were collected
and published by Frederick J. Work, R. Nathaniel Dett, T.
P. Fenner and Clarence Cameron White.
Spirituals as Art Songs
An African American composer named Harry Thacker Burleigh
was awarded a scholarship to the National Conservatory of
Music in New York City in 1892. The school principal, Anton
Dvorák, [Comp: set hacek (small v) over "r"] invited Burleigh
to transcribe and arrange as many spirituals as they could
both find. Because of Burleigh and Dvorák, the spiritual was
elevated to the status of art song and came to be included
in the concert repertoire of many classically trained American
singers. Burleigh's arrangements are still being used today.
1900s to the Present
In the twentieth century, spirituals gained a wide and appreciative
audience among people of all backgrounds and nationalities.
Paul Robeson (1898-1976), Mahalia Jackson (1911-1972), Sister
Rosetta Tharpe (1915-1973), Odetta (b. 1930), Harry Belafonte
(b. 1927), and many other black performers popularized the
spiritual while preserving its dignity and integrity. Blind
Willie Johnson (1904-1947), Bessie Smith (ca. 1898-1937),
Louis Armstrong (1901-1970) and other great blues and jazz
artists made spirituals a central part of their music. African
American recital soloists like Portia White (1911-1968), Marian
Anderson (1897-1993), and opera singer Jessye Norman (b. 1945)
have also incorporated spirituals into their concert programs.
Spirituals are also in the repertoires of rock and soul singers
such as Sam Cooke (1931-1964), Aretha Franklin (b. 1942),
and the Rev. Al Greene (b. 1946).
Writing about spirituals, an African American civil rights
leader, W. E. B. Du Bois (1868-1963) observed that the African
American race, in singing spirituals ". uttered the burden
of its soul in these songs of sorrow without the slightest
tinge of bitterness, animosity, or revenge." He was moved
by the optimism of many spirituals. They expressed to him
". a faith in the ultimate justice of things. . Sometimes,
it is faith in life, sometimes a faith in death, sometimes
assurances of boundless justice in some fair world beyond.
But whichever it is, the meaning is always clear: that sometime,
somewhere, men will judge men by their souls and not by their
Just as spirituals expressed the aspirations of generations
of enslaved African Americans for over 350 years in the United
States, they provided inspiration for and gave voice to the
Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s and continue to express
the desires of oppressed people today.