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Negro Spirituals: From the Heart of Slaves

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Where Did Spirituals Come From?

Spirituals are considered the earliest form of religious music developed by the African Americans during slavery. The creation of spirituals can be attributed to the converting of slaves to Christianity during the Great Awakening period. The slaves began to exhibit the Christian beliefs through their music all while including their hardships as well and thus the negro spiritual was born. Although spirituals are religious music they are not to be confused with hymns. Spirituals are not hymns, the structure of a spiritual is quite different and are loosely based on biblical scripture.

Characteristics/Elements

Call and Response: It is the defining structure of the negro spiritual. Call-response is when during a song, a singer or instrumentalist makes a statement or call and it is answered by another singer or group.

Double Entendre: Many spirituals included texts with double meanings. A lot of times they would convey both the slaves religious values and want for freedom.  

Ring Shout: Characterized by singing, hand clapping and/or other percussion while religious dance is performed in a circle.

Social Implications and Commodification

Spirituals allowed slaves to interpret and express religious beliefs and feelings along with their struggles through music. Spirituals united them and provided them with a way to deviate from their cruel surroundings. Negros did not receive credit or recognition for spirituals and had their songs stolen and put into song books for profit while the creators remained nameless.

Significant Artists and Composers

Wallis Willis: He is credited for composing several negro spirituals. His most famous spiritual is “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot” with its earliest known recording in 1909.

Marian Anderson: Born in 1897, she was deemed one of the greatest and most celebrated vocalist of the 20th century.

The Influence of Negro Spirituals

Spirituals have had the most influence on gospel because they were primarily based on religion. Spirituals evolved into the contemporary gospel we are accustomed to listening to today. The components of spirituals and gospel almost mirror each other proving their extreme similarity. 

Summary

Negro spirituals are a fundamental part of slave narratives and helped shaped African American culture. They reflect on a pivotal turn in African American history when Christianity, which is now a large factor in black communities, was introduced. Spirituals ultimately showcased one of the many ways blacks can lighten their circumstances with their creative abilities.

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