Spirituals came about during the years of slavery when one of the only forms of expression that was allowed for slaves was music. Slaves used spirituals as a way to cope with the hardships of bondage. Also, many spirituals had multiple meanings, so slaves used them to communicate with each other in code. Folk songs were more widely considered as “work songs,” which can easily be confused with spirituals. Work songs were used more for unifying slaves while they were doing hard labor in order to make it feel easier.
Many spiritual songs were sad and melancholy, called “sorrow songs.” There were also some celebratory spirituals, considered “jubilees,” which were more happy. Both spirituals and work songs typically consisted of certain chants, call and response lines, and clapping/foot stomping. Most of them also had the element of timbre, which made the songs sound more gritty instead of conventionally pretty.
In the 1800’s, spirituals were an emotional and creative outlet for slaves. It was a way to humanize their experiences and provide them a voice when they did not have one. Spirituals were used as a way for slaves to relate to each other and share their stories. Eventually, spiritual songs were noticed by white people, who began creating their own versions of the genre. Some white choruses performed spirituals as a form of mockingly humorous entertainment.
Because spiritual songs created and sang by groups of people, there are not very many individual singers who were very famous for singing spirituals. However, Harriet Tubman wrote the song, “Wade in the Water,” to help give slaves advice for a more successful escape. This song was sung so much during slavery that it became one of the most famous spiritual songs to date.
Slaves did not make money on spirituals, but shortly after slavery was abolished, black singers at Fisk University were able to raise enough funds to tour Europe singing spiritual songs. Other choruses were eventually able to do the same, but their purpose for touring was more commonly motivated by the desire to share the genre rather than by money.
Influence on Future Genres
Gospel music and spirituals tend to have similar characteristics. Spiritual songs were often sung in praise of God, so the transition to gospel music was smooth. In many churches, the choruses will sing with similar timbre, clap their hands, stop their feet, and sing in a chanting style, all of which are traits that originated from spiritual songs.
Spirituals acted as a much needed emotional outlet for slaves during the 1800’s, prompting people’s faith in God and helping them cope with the hardships of slavery. Even though some people feel that singing spirituals is merely a reminder of all the years black people spent enslaved, I can appreciate the ways that singing them can help people connect with their ancestry and religion.