|Stylistic origins||Work song, Christian hymns|
|Cultural origins||Enslaved Africans in the U.S.|
|Derivative forms||Blues, gospel music|
Spirituals (or Negro spirituals) are religious (generally Christian) songs that were created by enslaved African people in the United States. Although spirituals were originally unaccompanied monophonic (unison) songs, they are best known today in harmonized choral arrangements.
The term spiritual is derived from spiritual song. The King James Bible's translation of Ephesians 5:19 says: "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 black and white Christian community through the 19th century (and indeed much earlier), and "spiritual" was used as a noun to mean, according to the context, "spiritual person" or "spiritual thing", but not specifically with regard to song. Negro spiritual first appears in print in the 1860s, where slaves are described as using spirituals 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, 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.
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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.
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During slavery in the United States, there were systematic efforts to dis-empower the captive Black workforce. Slaves were forbidden from speaking their native languages, and were generally converted to Christianity.
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 meetings,worshipers 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. Dancing was prohibited for the slaves to engage in, but it was defined as "crossing feet." To get around this, they would shuffle in these ring shouts, merely shuffling their feet. 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 was often forbidden, and slaves were ordered to desist from the "paganism" of the practice of spiritual possession.
Prior to the 1800's, slaves were banned from learning Christianity because then they would be recognized as people. However, as tensions rose between the north and the south, there was a pact made allowing the southern plantations to keep the slaves if they are taught Christianity. One of the reasons the slaves accepted learning the tradition is because in their tradition African culture, they would adopt their conquerors' Gods as their own. In this case, many of the Slaves turned towards either the Baptist or Methodist churches because in their culture, the River Gods are viewed as the most powerful and in the Baptist tradition, one has to be fully submerged underwater, preferably in a river as was done in the Old Testament of the Bible. It is important to note that when the slaves began learning Christianity, it helped both the slave owner and the slaves. To the former, slaves became less rebellious whereas to the latter, the church, or even the early "praise houses", it provided a communal place for them to gather and, ultimately, empowered them. (Baraka, Amiri (1999). Blues People: Negro Music in White America. Harper Perennial. ISBN 978-0688184742.)
However, 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. The "call and response" is often accompanied by instruments and sounds much like a song. Speaking in tongues is 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 1730's. Other influences come from work songs, early negro spirituals (when they gathered in secrecy), and white spirituals, those from southern, white churches. Slave composers took material from older songs, such as Christian hymns, and the Bible to create something entirely new and special to the culture. 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.
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.
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.
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.
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. 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. The reason for their performance was the school needed money. 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.
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).
Ball, Edward, Slaves In The Family, Ballantine Books, New York 1998. See chapter 17 which references the Society for Preservation of Spirituals.