From its name “Negro-spiritual”, this kind of music describes christian or spiritual songs created by African Americans. This music emerged during the period of slavery. Its lyrics are based on the hardships African-Americans faced during this time. Christian songs were very influential on the writing of African-American spirituals, especially those from the “Great Awakening” of the 1730s. As Africans were exposed to stories from the Bible, they began to see parallels to their own experiences. The story of the exile of the Jews and their captivity in Babylon, resonated with their own captivity.The term “spiritual” is derived from “spiritual song”, from the King James Bible’s translation of Ephesians 5:19, which says, “Speaking to yourselves in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody in your heart to the Lord.”
The negro spirituals are comprised of songs that are very sacred and melancholic. There is emphasis placed on the emotion of the singers, as these are deeply emotional songs. The words are most often related to biblical passages.Spirituals are sung in a call and response form, where the leader starts with a line and the entire choir join in chorus.
The very first negro spirituals were inspired by African music even if the tunes were not far from those of hymns. Some of them, which were called “shouts” were accompanied with typical dancing including hand clapping and foot tapping.
African Americans used to sing outside of churches. During slavery and afterwards, slaves and workers who were working at fields or elsewhere outdoors, were allowed to sing “work songs”. This was the case, when they had to coordinate their efforts for hauling a fallen tree or any heavy load. Even prisoners used to sing “chain gang” songs when they worked on the road or on some construction project.
Negro-spiritual music became widely accessible as published collections in 1867, reaching broader audiences and even influencing other genres. However, the music industry at the time restricted the exposure of black music to black communities. This allowed the white artists, to cover some of the music, imitate their style and exploit the music for mainstream consumption
Most authors of the Spirituals are unknown as they were spontaneous unwritten songs. However some composers such as Charles Tindley, Harry Burleigh, John Johnson helped to arrange some of the negro-spiritual music.
Most of the songs have been revised from the original versions, so it is typical to find different modified version of these songs by different artists . Even in the modernized versions, a common characteristic notable is the heavy emotion displayed by the singers.
Some well-known negro-spiritual songs include Wade in the water , Swing low, sweet chariot composed by Wallis Wallis and Down by the riverside.
The negro-spirituals influenced the Jubilee quartet sounds ,as most of their songs were based on the lyrics of negro-spirituals but with a different type of sound. Negro-spirituals has also heavily influenced black gospel music today.
Below is a rendition of swing low, sweet chariot.