Background

The spiritual was the earliest form of religious music to develop among African Americans in the United States.  As the genre of Spirituals came from slavery, it reflected ideals tempered by the cultural, social, and physical experience of the prolonged servitude and it symbolized the unique expression that the slave population had of Christian religious values.  As spirituals are a form of music that was passed down through oral tradition, it is difficult to determine the precise origin of it.

Radically departing from the form and performance style associated with hymns, the spiritual sought a different style than the one introduced to slaves by European missionaries.  Hymns are metrical compositions in strophic form, based loosely on biblical scripture, and typically eights bars of rhyming couplets.  However, call-response was a defining structure of the spiritual, where the second phrase, typically done by a soloist, group, or instrumentalist, is a direct response to the first phrase, typically done by a singer or instrumentalist.  Commonplace markers of an African-inspired Christianity involved hand clapping, body movement, and unbridled displays of religious ecstasy.   

 

Examples of Negro Spirituals

An important role in the development of spirituals was cultural memory, as it was a uniquely American product designed to meet the cultural and religious needs, of a disenfranchised people who refused to be destroyed or defeated by the state of human bondage.  The spirit of freedom was symbolized through the birthing of the spiritual.  It gave African Americans a space to articulate self-defined praise and worship.  

 

Negro Spirituals remains a vital part in African American culture, functioning as both religious and cultural expression.  The spiritual is the embodiment of an African cultural past cultivated on American soil.  Many negro spirituals have endured the hands of time because of their enduring beauty and intrinsic power to speak to the hearts of men and women across boundaries of space and time.  

Arrangements of spirituals are played by many orchestras, choirs, and Historicall Black Colleges and Universities, such as the Spelman Glee Club.  Many songs have evolved into contemporary gospel music, and many have been used in protesting injustice, such as the Civil Rights Movement.

 

 

Famous works of art from the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater have utilized negro spirituals, modifying it to fit the company, such as ‘Wade in the Water’ and ‘Didn’t my Lord Deliver Daniel.’