1860 Negro Spirituals

Evolution of Negro Spirituals

Music was a general way for slaves to express how they felt. Whether it was to express happiness or sadness, it was a way for them to articulate how much slavery really took over their mental health.  But it also was a way for them to keep occupied and think about something other than the gruesome labor and abuse they’re being put through. 

Famous Negro Spirituals and Their Meanings

Amazing Grace: Amazing Grace was written by John Newton in 1772 and published in 1779. Newton wrote from personal experience. It’s about forgiveness and redemption of sins.

Wade in the Water: Wade in the Water was written by Ramsey Lewis.  It was then published and sung in 1901 by John Welsey Work II, his brother, and the Jubilee Singers.  The song was used as a secret communication method for slaves to communicate to each other when they will try to escape to freedom. The title allowed for slaves to know when to stay in or close to the water so dogs could stop looking or trying to find them.

Go Down Moses: Go Down Moses was written by slaves in the 1800s and published in Harriet Tubman’s autobiography by Sarah Bradford. This song was used by Tubman to let slaves know when she was close to being able to help those who wanted to escape. This call and response were used as hope for slaves that they may be free. 

Lift Every Voice and Sing: Lift Every Voice and Sing was originally a poem written by James Weldon Johnson.  John Rosamond Johnson turned it into a hymn in 1899. The meaning of the song was a call to action that honors African American culture.  It has been said that it is the African American equivalent to the U.S. National Anthem.  This is because to most, African Americans weren’t welcomed with open arms so they also weren’t thought of when the National Anthem was being written thus creating their own.


Known Negro Spiritual Writers:

-Big Bill Broonzy

-Sister Rosetta

-Sam Lucas

-Charles Albert Tindley

-Odetta Holmes 

-Wallace Willis

My Thoughts

Negro Spirituals are more than just songs. They are the feelings, pain, and culture of the African American community who were forced into slavery. Life Every Voice and Sing was one of the first songs I learned going to a predominantly Black elementary and middle school.  Once I switched schools, to a predominantly white junior high and high school, I never heard the song unless I had my choir class. Between Life Every Voice and Sing and Wade in the Water, those were the only two spirituals I heard in high school. It’s sad that the only way you learn about these spirituals is if you are African American.  Wade in the Water and Swing Low, Sweet Chariot are two of my favorite negro spirituals. Both I learned in school but didn’t learn the meanings behind them until doing research for myself. I am glad that African Americans, if in the right space, are given the opportunity to learn these spirituals from young and are able to grow up on them even if they don’t truly understand the significance. 

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