Finding the Spirit in Slavery: Negro Spirituals

Origin of the Genre

Folk music was created by Africans forcibly brought over to America and enslaved. From folk music came Negro Spirituals. Negro Spirituals were religious songs that were created by enslaved people. They were not allowed to worship in the way they wanted due to restrictions put on their religion by slavemasters. They were forced to attend church and worship in the European fashion. This resulted in the creation of invisible churches. The invisible churches were places African American slaves went to practice their faith in private.

Characteristics of the Genre

Negro Spirituals tend to have similar characteristics to folk music. Some of these characteristics include:

Call-and-response was an element that Africans used to create early music in the Americas. This element translated to Negro Spirituals. This element is where the lead makes a statement, and then this statement is answered by the group. Some of the calls were improvised, but they were followed by a strong unified choral response from the congregation. 

Double Entendre is a style where the lyrics in a song have a double meaning. It was used to convey feelings or secret messages. This helped African Americans communicate when they were talking in front of white people. This element also shows resilience because it was an alternate form of communication developed when barriers were placed in our way.

Ring shout is when singing, clapping, and dancing are incorporated into the performance of the Negro Spirituals. This was usually done in secret, because African Americans could not worship the way they wanted to in white churches. This was an act of defiance against the social guidelines set for African Americans.

A capella is a musical style where the performers sing without musical accompaniment. In some instances, the performers use their voices as instruments. A capella focuses on harmonizing and melodies. In the past, it was forced upon African Americans because their instruments were taken away on plantations. It is a sign of resilience because despite not having instruments, we still made music and were able to influence all the rest of the music genres.

Social Implications

The Negro Spirituals reflected what the African Americans were going through at the time.  Negro Spirituals usually focused on the conditions of the people singing. They were used to sing the pain away. The messages were biblical, but they focused on calling for freedom through the messages in their songs. During hard times, new spirituals were created to address whatever the hardship was.

Important Performers

Some important performers of Negro Spirituals were Harry T. Burleigh, a very renowned African American artist.

Another notable Negro Spiritual singer is Paul Robeson. He was the first person to perform an entire concert of Negro Spirituals. 


Once white slave owners noticed the Negro Spirituals, they began making slaves perform them in front of audiences. They made money off of the slave’s performances. As African Americans began to form their own groups and perform, they began to make money off of the performances. Some of these groups began at colleges, such as the Fisk Jubilee Singers from Fisk University. They developed the Negro Spirituals into the Jubilee Quartet genre.

Influences of Future Genres

Gospel music evolved from Negro Spirituals. Right after its creation, it directly influenced the jubilee quartet genre, because many jubilee quartets are Negro Spirituals with a beat or rhythm behind them. These arranged performances eventually became gospel music.

Conclusory Opinions

Early Negro Spiritual music creation was a way for African Americans to reclaim our religion and spirituality. Christianity was forced upon us by the European slave owners, but through these different elements, we were able to create a form of worship that was beneficial and unique. This type of worship is still followed today and has evolved into modern black churches.

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