Negro spirituals originated when Africans were pillaged from their home and sent to America to be enslaved. While in America, slave owners often forced them to convert to Christianity, ultimately making them more submissive. Under their harsh working conditions, they made songs that could describe their experiences or even praised their newfound Christian God. There were also songs made that, in part, helped fugitive slaves communicate to be able to escape to “the North”, where slavery was abolished.
“Call and response”: Oftentimes the leader would holler and the “criers” would repeat what the leader said.
RingShout: Usually the group would make form a circle and they would stomp their feet and clap their hands
Messages: Sometimes songs performed contained messages of the escape planned and where the final destination of the escape would take place, such as the spiritual “There is a balm in Gilead”
Enslaved Africans often sang negro spirituals to help pass along messages of escape, as well as a way to safely express their feelings in their own way. Some songs, such as “Wade in the Water” even provided messages of how to avoid being caught and even which routes to take like avoiding dry land compared to the water because the water would throw off the bloodhounds that were chasing them.
Because the enslaved weren’t allowed to know how to read or write, they didn’t write their songs down. Everything was word of mouth, so no one was able to be credited for their performances of this genre, besides remakes. Harry T. Burleigh is credited as helping the genre regain popularity,specifically with concert singers in the 1920s.
After slavery was abolished in 1865, and the newly freed Americans were able tot go to school, many did not want to relive their slavery experiences, so negro spirituals were only popular in churches, specifically the Church of God in Christ. Eventually in the 1920s, Harry T. Burleigh popularized the genre in concert form, by composing spirituals that could be performed by concert soloists.
Influence on other genres
The genre that was most clearly impacted by spirituals is gospel music. It still follows the “call and response” form that was often heard in spirituals and is also Christian music.
I love this genre. Although I am Muslim, I love listening to Black Christian songs as a way to feel closer to my God. I believe its an important way to maintain a spiritual connection with anything one believes in, even if religion isn’t the forefront of a person’s life. It gives hope, which is why I believe the enslaved kept singing.