Negro Spirituals

What are Negro Spirituals?

Negro Spirituals are a genre of folk songs that originated during slavery dating back to 1865. Negro spirituals were the primary ways that slaves were able to worship together so all of these songs are essentially retelling different biblical stories. Many of the negro spirituals also featured pleas to God to grant the slaves freedom from their lives in servitude. If there was anything that slaves would not let go of during this time, it was the spirit of their ancestors, their faith, and their song. 

Some Popular Negro Spirituals:

Wade in the Water.

Swing Low, Sweet Chariot

Down By The Riverside

Nobody Knows the Trouble I’ve Seen

Take My Hand, Precious Lord

Mary, Don’t You Weep

Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child

My Lord, What a Morning

Defining Characteristics of Negro Spirituals:

– references to God and Christianity

– discussion about freedom

– call and response (much like what was customary in early religious worship as well as contemporary worship)

The Preservation of Negro Spirituals

Slaves were not keeping a written log of negro spirituals over time. Slaves passed down different songs orally while Whites from the North would come to the South in order to observe and write down negro spirituals. In 1867, 100 Slave Songs of the United States was published by William Francis Allen, Charles Pickard Ware, and Lucy McKim Garrison. While slaves did not ever receive credit for the profits that Allen, Ware and Garrison were producing from this anthology, this publication did assist in the spread of negro spirituals across the country, for better or for worse. While many black quartets and choirs later picked up negro spirituals as common selections to sing, White choirs and singers were also interested in singing negro spirituals. Because of this widespread interest in negro spirituals from Whites, negro spirituals became extremely popular across the country. Negro spirituals are still selected today in many black churches across the United States.

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