Negro spirituals and their remnants within the modern black population. By:Rebekah Glover and Trinity Seegars

Negro spirituals proliferated in the last few decades of the eighteenth century, leading up to abolishing legalized slavery in the 1860s. A type of music that emerged during slavery, it embodied the slave population’s unique expression of Christian religious values and ideals. This music was said to have been ” tempered by the social, cultural, and physical experience of prolonged involuntary servitude…departed radically from the form and performance style associated with the hymns and psalms introduced to slaves by European missionaries.” ((Burnim and Maultsby).negro spirituals were used to communicate with one another without the knowledge of their masters. This was particularly the case when a slave was planning to escape bondage and seek freedom via the Underground Railroad.

Negro Spirituals and Modern Christianity

Africanized Christianity is defined as when Africans reinterpreted Christianity in the light of their own religious concerns and concepts and made it their own. African converts reinterpreted christianity, spread it, and created their own churches amid the slave trade and colonial rule. They sought autonomy from white Christians, and their churches, such as the African Methodist Episcopal Church, began to grow. They still thrive in the present day. The spirituals popularized by the Fisk Jubilee Singers in the late 19th century were later augmented by the urban Gospel music of Thomas E. Dorsey and others beginning in the 19th century. Demonstrative behaviors today such as hand clapping, body movement, and unbridled displays of religious enthusiasm are commonplace markers of an African-inspired Christianity through Gospel music. Although Negro Spirituals have a significant presence in the concert hall, the original form heard in African American churches has decreased in the twentieth century with the rise in popularity of Gospel music. Gospel music has preserved the lyrics of many spirituals, but the musicality has changed dramatically, as harmonies are added and the tunes have been arranged to suit new performance styles.

Europen/White Spirituals v. Africanized Christianity

Africanized Christianity is still seen today through the way that African Americans have continued to innovate and make Christianity, in particular Christian music, their own and distinctive. For example, unlike some white contemporary Christian music,  distinctive performance styles and traditions, such as melisma and highly choreographed dance routines, have continued to be a staple within the Black gospel. white spirituals, although far less recognized compared to negro spirituals, encompass the folk hymn.

Negro Spirituals and HBCU's

 HBCUs played a pivotal role in the popularization of Negro Spirituals. In the 1870s, the Fisk Jubilee Singers, an acapella chorus consisting of former slaves from Fisk University in Nashville, Tennessee, were formed to raise money for the school. They gave prominence to the music form by performing songs such as “There is a Balm in Gilead” that were very well received by audiences all over the United States and Europe. Similarly, the Hampton Singers of Hampton Institute, which rivaled the Jubilee Singers, gained an international following under their composer R. Nathaniel Dett. Dett was known for his stirring arrangement of spirituals and original compositions. It is primarily because of HBCUs such as Fisk and Hampton that Negro Spirituals have continued to persist as one of America’s most beloved and revered musical genres.

Singers and Composers

noted composers, such as Moses Hogan, Wendell Whallum, Brazeal Dennard, Jester Hairston, and Roland Carter, took the genre beyond its traditional folk song roots in the twentieth century. Composers like Henry T. Burleigh pioneered the way for the appearance of Negro Spirituals on the concert hall stage and created piano-voice arrangements of spirituals that were widely performed. During the years of the Black Renaissance, several artists, such as Marian Anderson (“Deep River, etc.) and Paul Robeson(“We Are Climbing Jacob’s Ladder,” etc.), promoted negro spirituals. Some of them included negro spirituals in their shows. Dorothy Maynor was another concert artist who used to sing Negro Spirituals. After 1985, negro spirituals were sung at church by the congregations, and by invited singers. But many soloists and choirs sing negro spirituals for concerts and special events. for example, The Plantation Singers perform spirituals in the traditional way of singing in plantations. Some acapella singing groups, such as the Northern Kentucky Brotherhood Singers, include negro spirituals in their repertoire.

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