Negro Spirituals and Folk Music

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During the transatlantic slave trade, slaves brought their traditional customs to colonial America. Western Europeans were introduced to African language, folklore, religion, dancing, and most importantly singing. When examining music of the 21st century, the presence of African influence continues to exist.

Negro spirituals served as a gateway for slaves to escape the turmoils of slavery through song. Spirituals provided slaves a feeling of hope in regards to one day being free. Slaves were able to use specific jargon that white slave owners thought was “strange” and “noise” as a way to communicate means for escape. For example, “Sweet Low, Sweet Chariot” was sometimes used to communicate information about Harriet Tubman and the Underground Railroad. The sound of negro spirituals includes timbre, lined hymn, shouts, and call and response. Timbre describes the sound quality. Many Europeans were not fond of the sound of negro spirituals. The purpose of spirituals is manipulate the voice as use for means of expression, not to sound pleasant to the ear. Shouting is also used as a form of expression. Some gospel music takes the form of  negro spirituals in relation to the delivery of shouts. Line hymn is performed by having the first line of a song sung by a leader then followed by the congregation performed during many church congregations today. Call and response can be observed in jazz and blues music of the 20th and 21st century. For example, sometimes an instrument will lead the singer. After instrumental, the singer will follow with similar dialogue.

Harry Burleigh is a composer that used negro spirituals as inspiration for composition of classical music proving the influence of negro spirituals in most music genres following the spiritual era. Spirituals were also performed by Fisk Jubilee group in the 1900’s to elevate and uplift their fellow African American.


Negro spirituals serve as the beginning of African influence in music in America. Without the influence of negro spirituals, music today would not sound the same. During the civil rights movement, spirituals were recycled and used by civil rights leaders as a tool to encourage protesters to remain hopeful during the fight similar to they’e ancestors. Spirituals have been recycled and used during church congregations. Many churches still adopt delivery of spirituals similar to slaves. Without negro spirituals, the presence of music in other genres would not be the same.

This clip from the movie “12 Years a Slave” is a 21st century depiction of negro spirituals

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