Negro Spirituals By: Makayla Leonard 

Negro spirituals were sung by slaves, who were also Christians, as a way to explain their hardships. Since they were stripped of everything, it is said to believe that singing became a place of comfort for the slaves. Negro spirituals are also a prominent form of the American folksong. Negro spirituals are still being sung in different spaces today, for example, church services all over the world. Wade in the water, swing low, and many others have become common songs in the southern Black Baptist churches. As time progressed and the Negro Spirituals become very public, white people even started singing Negro spirituals. Negro spirituals derived from folk music in terms of its elements. I feel that the biggest components of negro spirituals are its connection to Christianity and to the many troubles of African American peoples.

Negro spirituals are songs created by Africans who were brought to America to be enslaved against their will. Although they had their language, families, and cultures taken away from them, they still held on to their music. The singing and creation of Negro spirituals was very important to the enslaved people because it aided them in overcoming their oppression. The singing of these songs also reflected the enslaved people’s need to express their newfound faith. Not only were spirituals used to uplift the slaves, but they also used them to communicate with each other without their masters knowing.

Characteristics of Negro Spirituals

Spirituals can fall into 3 different categories:

Call and response: This is when a leader sings the first line and then it is repeated back by a chorus. ex. ( “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot, Go Down Moses”)

Slow and melodic: this type of spiritual is typically expressed with sustained, and meaningful phrasing, generally is done in a slower tempo.

Fast and Rhythmic: these songs usually tell a story in a faster rhythm and also uses syncopation. ex. (“Joshua Fit the Battle of Jericho”)

The biggest factor that contributed to the origin of Negro Spirituals was work songs. In short, negro spirituals were a way to get through the strenuous work being done by slaves. The sacred nature of this music was to remind slaves that there was something better than the earthly suffering they were experiencing. The timbre of this music is very deep and soulful, it is moving and very traditionally black religious. Essential elements of this music include ring shouts, slow tempo, sacred texts, and were still deeply inspired by African music. This music was commodified later in history by white people to serve as a false creation of Black history. All of our “originals” were written out, they created sheet music, and put it in books to be sold. Some important negro spiritual artists include Paul Robeson and Roland Hayes. This genre had a huge influence on what later become gospel music.

Paul Robeson performing  Ol’ Man River


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