ORIGIN: A spiritual is a type of religious folksong that is most closely associated with the enslavement of African people in the United States of America. The songs embodied in the last few decades of the eighteenth century leading up to the abolishment of legalized slavery in the 1860s. The Negro Spiritual constitutes one of the largest and most significant forms of American folksong. The term “spiritual” is derived from the King James Bible(KJV) translation of Ephesians 5:19: “Speaking to yourselves in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody in your heart to the Lord.”
Characteristics: The form has its roots in the informal gatherings of African slaves in “praise houses” in the eighteenth century. At the meetings, participants would sing, chant, dance and sometimes enter ecstatic trances, think the modern day “Holy Ghost.” Spirituals also stem from the “ring shout,” a shuffling circular dance to chanting and handclapping that was common among early plantation slaves. Spirituals are typically sung in a call and response form, with a leader improvising a line of text and a chorus of singers providing a solid refrain in unison. Many spirituals, known as “sorrow songs,” are characterized as intense, slow and melancholic. Some songs describe the slaves’ struggles and identification the suffering of Jesus Christ. Other spirituals are more gleeful. Known as “jubilees,” they are fast, rhythmic and often syncopated.
Social implications: Because these songs reflected a much darker and harder time for Black people many were in disfavor of allowing the songs to be performed in front of audiences, groups like the Fisk Jubilee Singers were able to advocate for the beauty in the music style.
Spirituals have played a significant role as vehicles for protest at intermittent points during the twentieth and early twenty-first centuries. During the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 1960s, spirituals as well as Gospel songs supported the efforts of civil rights activists. Some activists went as far as claiming that negro spirituals could not be singularly linked to slavery as each rendition painted a different story. Some lyrics could even be spun to fit the climate and agenda of some protests.
Important performers: The most important performers are the many indentured men and women of these slave plantations. These songs had no authors, no composers, no pen and pad. The music was an outlet for the slaves as they endured the toil of unbearable servitude. They come out of the slave experience, songs of perseverance and hope. On the other hand, there are many powerful renditions and later performances of these melodies that truly convey the essence of the songs meaning. Including some widely recognized tunes such as, “ “Wade in the Water”, “The Gospel Train” and “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot”.”
Influence on genres: The Black Renaissance had some influence on the way of singing and interpreting negro spirituals.
For example, educators thought that negro spirituals were musical pieces, and therefore needed to be interpreted as such. New groups formed, and sung harmonized negro spirituals. This constant improvement of negro spirituals gave birth to another type of Christian songs. These were inspired by the Bible and related to everyday life. Thomas A. Dorsey was the first who composed such new songs. He called them Gospel songs, but some people say “Dorseys”. He is considered as being the Father of Gospel music.
Commodification: The publication of collections of spirituals in the 1860s started to arouse a broader interested in spirituals. In the 1870s, the creation of the Jubilee Singers, a chorus consisting of former slaves from Fisk University in Nashville, Tennessee, sparked an international interest in the musical form.The appearance of spirituals on the concert hall stage was further developed by the work of composers like Henry T. Burleigh, who created widely performed piano-voice arrangements of spirituals in the early twentieth century for solo classical singers.Many recordings of these rural spirituals, made between 1933 and 1942, are housed in the American Folklife Center collections at the Library of Congress.
Conclusory: Negro Spirituals reflect on a time in history of great darkness, and a greater perseverance that sparked a music style that depicted life for our enslaved ancestors. Instead of giving negro spirituals a negative connotation, the performers and musically inclined individuals took it and molded it into something beautiful enough to behold and capture audiences from all over the globe.I advise to listen to this music with our eyes closed and allow it to carry us back with its deep, slow, essence..