More Than Just Words: The Lyrics Behind Spirituals

Spirituals Overview

  • Spirituals are the religious music of African Americans during slavery (book)
  • The prevalence of Spirituals increased towards end of 18th century leading to ending of legalized slavery (1860s).
  • Spirituals are also known as “Negro Spirituals” are one of the most noteworthy forms of American folksong.
  • The word “spiritual” comes from Ephesians 5:19: “Speaking to yourselves in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody in your heart to the Lord.” (King James Version).
  • The genre came about after various gatherings of slaves called “praise houses” and outside meetings called “brush arbor meetings”/ “bush meetings” / “camp meetings”

More Than Just Lyrics

  • The lyrics were connected to the lives of the authors with inspiration coming from the messages of Jesus Christ and the Good News known as the gospel of the Bible surrounded around “everyone can be saved”
  • The lyrics are very different from typical hymns and psalms due to slaves having a connection from bonding over the fact that they were slaves.
  • Often, the lyrics are used for expression of personal feeling and giving sense of cheer to each other.

Literal or Coded Meanings?

Life Connections

  • The lyrics typically include or talk about characters from Old Testament who overcame trials and tribulations that were easily identifiable to the slaves such as Moses, Daniel, and David.
  • The lyrics tell the story of what the slaves might have been going through at the time
    • Various lyrics can easily be detected with what they connect with
      • “Wade in the Water,” “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot,” and “The Gospel Train” can be linked to the Underground Railroad
      • “My Army Cross Over” and “Lord Remember Me” can be tied to the overall theme of death.
      • “Sweet Music,” “Good News,” and “The Heavenly Road” can be linked to the times of war.

“Swing Low, Sweet Chariot” – Julian Espinosa

“Lord Remember Me” – Ruthie Foster

“Ain’t That Good News” – The Moses Hogan Singers

Various Songs

Link to Negro Spirituals Databse:


“African American Spirituals.” Planning D-Day (April 2003) – Library of Congress Information Bulletin, Victor,

Burnim, Mellonee V., and Portia K. Maultsby, editors. African American Music: an Introduction – 2nd Ed.Routledge, 2006. Chapter 3: Secular Folk Music

History Official Site of Negro Spirituals, Antique Gospel Music,

“The Negro Spiritual.” THE SPIRITUALS DATABASE, 21 Nov. 2017,

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