A negro spiritual is a form of religious music created by African Americans during slavery in the 1800’s. Spirituals were the earliest form of religious music developed among African Americans. Often mistaken as a combination of European hymns, Spirituals were not hymns. The defining structure of a spiritual was call and response. Call and response is a song structure in which a singer or instrumentalist makes a musical statement that is answered by another soloist, instrumentalist, or the group. Call and response are ubiquitous in the regions of West and Central Africa from which the slave population originated. Spirituals symbolized freedom and allowed slaves to express themselves as they were far away from home. These negro spirituals were sung by the slaves in their “praise houses” or “bush meetings” although meetings were often banned by slave owners. Popular spirituals include “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot” composed by Wallis Willis and “Wade in The Water”. Some characteristics of negro spirituals were Christian themes, hidden messages, and intense flows. After the abolition of slavery, quartets came about and began to sing spirituals in hopes of raising money for their institutions which lead to the Jubilee quartet era.
Negro spirituals were a way for slaves to unite and bond through song and religion. The mix of slavery, African roots, and Christian influence went beyond music but helped heal as well. Spirituals gave slaves hope and something to believe in which brought peace during the harsh times of slavery. Negro spirituals are influential songs that eventually evolved and led to the creation of music that is produced today. Now, spirituals are still sung during times like Black History Month by oppressed people for the same reasons. Although spirituals were sung hundreds of years ago and slavery has been abolished, the “protest songs” are still necessary hundreds of years later as the battle has still not been won.