African American Spirituals

• Folk and Traditional Styles

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 spirituals.


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 skins."

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.