Defining and Preserving the Past-The Folk and Spiritual Genre – Leah Wardlaw

Although the precise date of the origination of the spiritual is unknown, it is clear that, since the beginning of organized cultural practice, music has been used for the transcendence of black consciousness into the new world. From afro-beats to chanting, this emulation of the nuances of the black psyche have been projected into sound in order to tell the stories of past and present experiences. Spirituals and black folk music display the development of narrative qualities of music, unlike any other genre. As black people navigated through the everyday struggles of slavery, spirituals and folk music provided both accessible guidance, by way of embedded lyrical meaning, and spiritual guidance against the adversarial forces of enslavement. The notes and lyrics of these songs, brought about by way of angst and turmoil, laid the rocky path to both collective and individual liberation of black people(s)

The origin of the genre was brought about by that which is deeply entrenched within the spirit of black folks. Rhythm and expression of self, in this way, were used to lay the foundational pieces that would allow for the inspiration of thousands of artists to come.

The rise of the Great Awakening of the early 18thcentury brought about a reactionary response amongst enslaved people seeking to preserve their sense of identity. These efforts served as a form of communicative liberation and active resistance against the impending western religious forces. Beyond religion, the morphing of the black individual, into a generalized category of   “slave “proved to be a source of much uproar. This was a death of identity.

Despite being stripped of instruments and overruled by oppressive laws such as the black codes of Virginia, spirituals and black folk music remained individual in its sound and style. Using hand clapping as percussionist elements or “pattin juba”, repetition, running, and dancing, the spiritual and folk genre served as a testament to the resourcefulness innate in black people and the ingenuity that allowed for the existing racial dichotomies to persist.

The difference in the music styles of whites and blacks brought on much conversation. Many expressed criticism and a disdain for the music until the genre was diluted into  a “more formal” performance style. The“Colored Christian Singers” were transformed into a seemingly more acceptable “Fisk Jubilee Singers”. These transformations enforced a degree of acceptance amongst the white public- a digestible form of blackness and led into both the elevation of the negro culture into society and the commodification of the sound. What was once seen as “evil” by men such as Watson, transformed into making $150,000 for arranged spiritual groups. This ushered in artists such as Harry T. Burleigh, Marian Anderson, and Robeson to popularize the genre. Entering into the 1820s white people began to borrow elements of spiritual and early secular folk music for entertainment purposes . Fiddlers, in some areas of the south, were encouraged and even forced at times to perform. This entertainment grew and developed through the 18thcentury into the 19thby way of protest songs such as “Go Down Moses”, creole songs, and work and game songs.

The social implications of the spiritual are most readily identifiable by their ability to allow for a voice to a people who had been silenced. The spiritual allowed for the perpetuation and continuation of the individual even in the face of extensive generalizations of black people and forced grouping. While enslaved individuals were grouped into the generalizing and dismissive term of” slaves” , spirituals and folk music amplified the voice of the individual and served as a way of re-humanizing their experience existing in America. The black celebration of the spiritual elevated the black negro in a way that allowed for the creative expression of thoughts and ideas in a day in which exasperating plight called for the elimination of such freedoms. These narrations of the emotional experiences of black people in America allowed for a multi-dimensional lenses of insight into the experience of slavery and its nuances.

It is the strength of these stories told by music that was

later recognized by writers of the 100 negro slave songs of the united states. Blacks were not paid for the documentation nor were they documented as authors. A dismissive,  “anonymous” signed as the author serves as a further extension of the experiences displayed in the music and reemphasizes the need for the documentation of these forms of self-expression

Spirituals and secular folk music laid the foreground for music which expresses plight and allowed for the start of creative renditions which carried black influence into genres such as blues, country, gospel, RnB, and hip-hop. The influence of black people is present and obvious in almost all narrative music, however, the lack of recognition and understanding of this fact continues to prove the fact that black people’s ideas have, and will continue to be stolen.


Johnny Cash – Swing Low, Sweet Chariot version ( copied from original)


Swing Low Sweet Chariot – Fisk Jubille

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