Negro Spirituals/ Folk Songs by Justice Phillips

Folk music is a musical form of storytelling. It is a very broad genre of music. It is a very traditional style of music and is often considered to be “roots music” due to it connection of many other genres that branch off of it. In Africa, folk music was used greatly. Music was used as a way to pass stories down from generation to generation. In rituals, Africans would use drums, banjos, and their voices to create musical art to pass along these stories of their heritage.

Negro slave songs (or Negro spirituals) are religious folksongs originated by the enslavement of African people in America. In Africa, music was essential part of life for people. When the slave trade occurred, Africans brought with them African heritage and they brought the art of music. The Africans were stripped of their drums and instruments, so these spirituals were sung acapella, with the use of “pattin’ juba” as the percussion element.  The songs are more than just music. They are expressions of the hardship and pain, and stories of the turmoil experienced by the slaves. They are also religious based. When Africans were brought to America, they were exposed to Christianity. So, these songs were also cries of hope, redemption, and faith. The negro spirituals were symbolic and served as a form of resistance for the slave, and in some cases, they served as an escape method for survival. For instance, spirituals such as “Wade in the Water” were used by Harriet Tubman to express methods of escape involving the Underground Railroad. These spirituals had great impact on the strength of slaves and abolitionist. They gave them the strength they needed to keep pushing and fighting and eventually led to abolishment of slavery.

By the 1860’s, white New- Englanders, who claimed to be abolitionist, had began to write down these spirituals and they profited by publishing books of negro spirituals. Minstrel Shows, shows mocking people of African descent, were used by white people to profit. In these shows, white people made money by making a mockery of these sacred spirituals. In the 1870s, the Fisk Jubilee Singers of Fisk University were assembled. They were a group of former slaves who raised awareness of the spirituals by performing them around the country and even Europe. Soon after the Hampton Singers of Hampton Institute was created and began performing the negro spirituals too. The spirituals have had a large influence on various other genres of music. Composers have used the spirituals to contribute to their classical pieces. Spirituals have been linked to genres of rock & roll, gospel, R&B, Hip Hop, and most definitely the blues.

Negro spirituals are pieces of African-American history. They are our connections to our African roots and to the beginning of African life in America.

Negro Spiritual Examples:

African Folk Music Example:

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