Spirituals: The Real Old Time Religion

By: Gabrielle Brim and Rochelle Alexander


Negro spirituals are expressions of the soul, in which enslaved Africans sang of their spirituality with God. They emerged during the late nineteenth century within slavery. After the first Great Awakening, several slaves were converted to Christianity, which helped to foster Spirituals. Although enslaved persons were expected to attend worship in the same church as their masters, they established invisible churches to worship without the supervision of whites. In the invisible churches, prayer, communal singing, testifying and sometimes preaching occurred. Through their expressions of worship, enslaved persons were able to create Spirituals based on scriptures and their sufferings from the harsh conditions of slavery.


The spirituals were credited as original and divinely inspired. They contained call and response elements and were mostly rooted in the contexts of Christianity. Negro spirituals reflected the desire of freedom for slaves and often had multiple meanings in the lyrics. The music as a whole involved hand clapping, body movement, shouting and dancing. In addition, there is a leader-chorus structure where short phrases are sung by a leader and responses come from a group or choir. The lyrics involved repetitions, various tempos and polyrhythms.

The sound of Negro spirituals is very distinct from regular church hymns. African-Americans used their voices and natural-born rhythm to the spirituals, giving them a more effective style. Their connection with faith was very strong and that was shown through the Negro spirituals.

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During the Reconstruction era, Negro spirituals became a financial asset to a historically black university struggling with finances during the time. The name of this institution was Fisk University. The school treasurer at that time developed a musical group called the Jubilee Singers to help raise money to support the university. The group raised $150,000 while they were on tour throughout the United States. Due to their success, other historically black colleges and universities formed musical groups.  

Important Performers 

Some important performers include Harry T. Burleigh and Paul Robeson. Burleigh was the first person to arrange Negro spirituals for solo voices. One of his most well known solo arrangements was “Deep River”. In addition, Burleigh was known for the practice of closing his recitals with spirituals. Additionally, Paul Robeson was the first to sing a concert that contained only Negro spirituals. Robeson also used his academic background in law in his performances of spirituals to confront oppression globally.


Negro spirituals helped influence jubilee quartets through its scripture based lyrics,  a cappella style, and call and response. Negro spirituals also had influence on gospel music through the use of polyrhythms and some elements of ring shouts, which is based on leader-chorus arranged singing, and hand-clapping.


In today’s society, Negro spirituals are often seen and recognized within the choruses of Historically Black Colleges and Universities, or within churches, such as Ebenezer Baptist Church . They are typically accompanied by pianos, pipe organs, orchestras, and acoustic guitars. The Negro spirituals sung by these groups have been translated from a collection of slave songs called, “Slave Songs of the United States,” which contained several Negro spirituals, such as “Roll Jordan Roll” and “Nobody Knows the Trouble I’ve Had.” Although the Negro spirituals have been translated into solo, ensemble and choral arrangements, the elements of spirituality and biblical basis still remain, and have been integrated into the lives of African Americans.

The arrangement of such music always evokes a memory of the struggle that our ancestors overcame, and how they used their hearts to make melodies unto the Lord.

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