Negro Spirituals/ Folk Songs: What are they?

When the first group of 20 African slaves was brought to the United States in 1619, they brought instruments, rhythm, and music with them. Negro Spirituals are a fundamental part of the African American community’s DNA, but what is a Negro Spiritual? It is a song that is tightly liked to the slave’s African ancestry and to the lives and circumstances of slaves. They serve as a way to express the Christian faith as well as their sorrows, hopes, forbearance and love. Slaves had a unique relationship with Christianity unlike their slave masters did, because they were able to identify with being rejected and despised like the Israelites in the Bible. This is why the plight of the African slave was so easily compatible to the Gospel of Jesus Christ. The, typically, call and response, highly rhythmic, and melancholic tunes were not only used as self-expression but also as codified protest songs against enslavement. Because slaves were often forced to attend church and sing songs, many of the spirituals had underlying meanings that only they could understand. For these reasons, the singing of Negro Folk songs became a social norm in African American communities. [I]

The social implications of Negro Spirituals are quite vast. They have become a staple and oral tradition in many black homes, churches, and communities because their messages are still applicable to today’s circumstances. For example: “Sometimes I feel Like a Motherless Child.” This song was applicable to the slave circumstance both figuratively and literally. Many slaves felt lost, afraid in a foreign land far from their original homeland. Also, many slaves were ripped apart from their families and were, for all intensive purposes, motherless children. In the 21st century, this song is applicable by feeling lost in the world, not knowing one’s heritage, and having no direction or guidance from wise council. These are issues that African American’s deal with everyday that can be expressed by this spiritual. In many African American communities these songs are just as sacred and meaningful as they were in the 1800s.

Although we don’t know exactly who wrote the individual Negro Spirituals, there have been many, very influential, performers to shed light and bring more attention to the songs. The Fisk Jubilee Singers from Fisk University have been very important to the genre by being among the first African American, collegiate, A capella concert ensembles to use their platform to help elevate the black community. It was a rarity to see professional African Americans singing Negro Spirituals in a concert setting. Their long dresses and tuxedoes became a tradition for African American singers for years to come. I even credit the Fisk Jubilee Singers with inspiring many Caucasian artists who began composing songs for orchestras based on Negro Spirituals. The Fisk singers may be one of the reasons Negro Spirituals began being used in more “serious”/ classical music. [II]

There are many other influential African American ensembles like the Tuskegee Institute Choir, Loudin’s Jubilee Singers, Wilmington Jubilee Singers, Slayton’s Jubilee Singers, etc. During the Black Renaissance, in addition to ensembles, many influential soloists began surfacing and performing Negro Folk Songs. Some of the most significant are Mariah Anderson, Paul Roberson, Sallie Martin, Mahalia Jackson, Jessye Norman, and Kathleen Battle. These artists have such a diverse style base ranging from classical to  soulful, which is what opened the doors for many other artists down the line to explore Negro Spirituals in various styles as well.

Although these artists are famous for performing popular Negro Spirituals, they are not the authors of these songs; the authors are unknown. In 1867, Charles Pickard Ware and Lucy McKim Garrison, two European abolitionists, wrote a book entitled Slave Songs of the United States: The Classic 1867 Anthology in an effort to collect the old southern Negro folk songs. While the book does accurately document over 130 Negro Spirituals, the writers of the songs are “anonymous.” This commodification left the writers with no credit and no profit from the book of which their creations were comprised. Stories like this hold true for many of the creations and inventions of African Americans from 1867 to present day. Repeatedly, a work of art or invention is create but it is stolen, renamed, and marketed to the Caucasian community, leaving blacks get no credit or recognition. This is why Negro Spirituals are still applicable today because the same injustices have been taking place since the first group of slaves was brought to the United States in 1619.

Negro Spirituals have influenced every genre in American History, most directly the Blues: a secular Negro genre that expresses their frustration, anger, sorrow, etc. without the aspect of spirituality. Famous Blues artists include B.B. King, Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, Buddy Guy, and John Lee Hooker. These artists are staples in the mostly male dominated, Blues genre. Negro Spirituals have also directly influenced Gospel: a spiritual genre expressing the Gospel of Jesus Christ and the Bible. This genre has an endless number of influential performers including Shirley Caesar, The Clark Sisters, Kirk Franklin, Fred Hammond, and Mary Mary. Gospel is similar to Blues because it, too, expresses sorrow and suffering, but focuses heavily on hope and a better after life. This fact gives the Gospel genre a more optimistic edge than the Blues. Negro Spirituals have been immensely influential in the creation of several other genres including, but not limited to, Rock N’ Roll, Soul, Funk, Hip Hop/ Rap, R&B, and Neo Soul, and Classical. Rock N’ Roll and Hip Hop take on the more rhythmic side of spirituals where as R&B and Neo Soul take on the more melodic, soulful aspects of the spirituals. By amplifying specific aspects of Negro Spirituals several new genres were born. By mimicking and marketing, Caucasians have gone on to dominate many American genres that were once predominately black like Rock N’ Roll and Blue Grass, which is another example of commodification of the creations of the African American.

Negro Spirituals are an integral part of the African American community and history. Negro Spirituals help explain the 246 years of slavery from the slaves’ point of view, which makes them every bit American history as well. Contrary to what many believe, these songs are nationally and racially representative of conditions in the United States. Not only have Negro Folk Songs influenced every African American musical genre; they have had a huge impact over many of the, now, Caucasian dominated genres. As long as the systems of this country are aimed at keeping African Americans in a second-class citizen status, Negro Spirituals will continue to hold the same weight they did when they were written. For this reason, I believe they are sacred and should be treated with the utmost respect.

Thank You for reading,

I hope you have Enjoyed!

Nia Jackson

[I] The Negro Spiritual: Origins and Themes

David McD. Simms

[II] History Official Site of Negro Spirituals, Antique Gospel Music

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