The Origins of the Negro Spiritual
African peoples were taken from Africa and enslaved here in the United States starting in 1619, ending in 1865. Despite being taken from their homes and having many aspects of their ways of life stripped from them, one practice they were able to retain was their music. Negro spirituals emerged from a mix of the harsh realities of slavery, the hope that emerged from Christian influences, and the origins of African culture. The capacity to turn daily troubles into uplifting song was a beautiful attribute of the enslaved African people.
Characteristics of Negro Spirituals
Most spirituals were sung in a call and response form and each individual song had a specific meaning. Some folks called them the sorrow songs initially, but eventually, they would come to be known as spirituals as time progressed. These songs were indeed therapeutic for the black slave, which was the only connection to freedom until the Underground Railroad and the Emancipation Proclamation.
Through these spirituals, slaves sang about issues and fears they could not openly convey out of fear of the slave masters. Many of the spirituals carried dual meanings and symbolic messages that only could be deciphered by the enslaved. For example, the lyrics of “Steal Away” served as an indication to slaves that a religious meeting was set to occur that night. Underground Railroad conductor Harriet Tubman used spirituals like “Wade in the Water” and “Deep River” to warn slaves about dangers they might encounter while escaping to freedom.
Social Implications and Important Performers
It was through these songs that important information was passed along a system of communication throughout the South. Coded songs conveyed messages about rebellions or escapes through the Underground Railroad. Even after slavery ended, these songs were still sung. Famous artists including, but not limited to, Mahalia Jackson, Kathleen Battle, the Fisk Jubilee Singers, Jessye Norman, and Marian Anderson, as well as composers like Hal Leonard, H. Burleigh, and R. Nathaniel Dett, kept the legacy alive with performances and different song arrangements throughout the years. Spirituals have been sung in the church of course, but particularly during the Civil Rights Movement and were used to convey struggles just as they were during slavery.
Commodification and Influences on Future Genres
Spirituals have had a heavy influence on Gospel and Gospel artists as well. Many songs, like Amazing Grace, Go, Tell It On The Mountain, Give Me Jesus, and Take Me To The Water have all carried over into modern worship in Black Baptist churches. Spirituals have also had an influence on the Blues and Folk music as well as Gospel. As with most music developed by African Americans, whites have entangled themselves in our creations. During slavery times, slave owners would force enslaved Africans to perform many songs they developed, and turned their songs meant for celebration into something taxing. Nevertheless, our people propelled forward.
Overall, I feel like Negro Spirituals were, are, and will be essential to the African American population and without Negro spirituals, modern music today surely would not have been able to grow and evolve into its current multifaceted state. Evolving through history and having a myriad of uses, including for entertainment with performances and as a means to uplift through worship in church. Negro spirituals are a sacred piece of African American history and should be cherished.
Here’s a link to my favorite concert featuring Kathleen Battle and Jessye Norman