Spirituals were originally an oral tradition that iintertwined Christianity and describing the hardships of slavery. Although spirituals were originally unaccompanied songs and developed into harmonized arrangements. The term “spiritual” is derived from the King James Bible 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.”
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 intense, slow and melancholic. Songs like “Sometimes I feel like a motherless child,” and “Nobody knows de trouble I’ve seen,” describe the slaves’ struggles and identification the suffering of Jesus Christ. Other spirituals are more joyful. Known as “jubilees,” or “camp meeting songs,” they are fast, rhythmic and often syncopated. Examples include “Rocky my soul” and “Fare Ye Well,”
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. African Americans at the time associated the spiritual tradition with slavery and were not enthusiastic about continuing it, the Fisk University singers performances persuaded many that it should be continued. The group’s extensive touring schedule in the United States and Europe included concert performances of spirituals that were very well received by audiences. Ensembles around the country started to emulate the Jubilee singers, giving birth to a concert hall tradition of performing this music that has remained strong to this day.