Negro Spirituals

Keep the Tradition or Be Innovative with our Culture?

by: Hunter Christopher

Negro Spirituals is a genre that continues to influence our culture. It is an influence of not only African American culture, but also Caribbean culture. Being from the British Virgin Islands has allowed be to recognize and foster a great appreciation for my roots in my heart. 

This August, we (in the British Virgin Islands) did not celebrate The Emancipation of Slavery as we usually would. All usual means of celebration and exciting events such as Festival, Jouvert, Village and Coney Island were cancelled due to the growing pandemic. However, my church still found ways to continue the celebration.

Completely decked out in African print and positive attitudes, my church (Sea Cows Bay Methodist Church) incorporated Negro Spirituals into Praise and Worship. We sang old negro spirituals like Roll Jordan Roll and Oh, Freedom.

We kept the rhythm and pacing very slow and similar to how I imagine the slaves to have sung it themselves. The idea of different variations of negro spirituals has always piqued my interest.

Attached are two YouTube links of performances of the negro spiritual Roll Jordan Roll. The first video is a performance by George Banton, a Jamaican artist, who put a reggae twist to the song. The second video is a clip from the movie 12 Years a Slave, emulating the original concept of a negro spiritual. 

Having the joy of being a part of the Spelman College Glee Club for my second year now, has also exposed me to negro spirituals that I had no idea existed. For Christmas Carol 2019, we sang our version of Children, Go Where I Send Thee. This rendition contrasts any negro spiritual, as it is very lively and even has a segment of rap for the bridge of the song. The Fairfield Four also has a presentation of the negro spiritual in the genre of jubilee quartet (during the transitional period).

One pressing question when enjoying both original negro spirituals as well as new renditions of them is, “Which version is better?” Should we keep keep performances strictly traditional, singing them just like how our ancestors did? Should we be innovative with our culture and incorporate new genres?

Culture is something that is ever-changing and music is undoubtedly a part of culture. My stance on the topic is simple; while we should appreciate the origins of all musical renditions, performances can integrate new and current artistic elements.

More Negro Spirituals

Listen to these two adaptations of Wade in the Water by the Spelman College Glee Club and Ella Jenkins.

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