Negro Spirituals/Slave Songs

The History of the Negro Spirituals

Long before we were born Africans were brought to the “New World” as slaves, forced to work in plantations and in the homes of white people. Constantly being abused and mistreated, going through unimaginable torture and pain. In order to combat these horrible circumstances, thousands of slaves would join together in secret places to sing spirituals, dance, and listen to preachers. Even without the use of instruments slaves were able to use “hand slapping and knee slapping” to create a beat and rhythm. Due to the fact that white slave owners would not allow slaves to sing and dance freely, most of these spirituals were sung outside the their churches. There were some cases in which slaves were allowed to “hum” or sing these spirituals:

“During slavery and afterwards, workers were allowed to sing songs during their working time. This was the case when they had to coordinate their efforts for hauling a fallen tree or any heavy load. For example, prisoners used to sing “chain gang” songs, when they worked on the road or some construction. But some “drivers” also allowed slaves to sing “quiet” songs, if they were not apparently against slaveholders. Such songs could be sung either by only one or by several slaves. They were used for expressing personal feeling, and for cheering one another.”

A large amount of these songs were created with the words of the bible, but when sung by slaves were given an even deeper meaning. The spirituals were/are reflections of their experiences and how they got through each day that came with new challenges and trials. Some of these songs are known as “African Work Songs”, which eventually turned into the Blues, which influenced the creation of Jazz, Rock n’ Roll, and Hip Hop.

After slavery was abolished in 1865, African Americans were finally given the chance to be educated and graduate from college. Fisk University was created in Nashville TN, and eventually with the help of funds the, “ Fisk Jubilee Singers” were created. They would sing the negro spirituals under the “leadership” of white men who were still grasping on to the power that they held over the African American race. Although slavery was documented as over, African Americans were not given clear instructions on what that really meant for them as citizens. White men took advantage of that confusion and created these groups of singing black men.

Something that I was unaware of (but not surprised either) was that many African Americans did not want to continue to remember, or perform these spirituals because it was a reminder of the tragic days of slavery. I can completely understand why they would not want to memorialize these songs, because they were used as a survival mechanism, they were sung through blood, sweat, and tears. Now in their freedom those songs bring back memories and to have the “white man” endorse and sing a long almost diminishes their original meaning.

Influential People

After watching the PBS specials I learned about the Slave Songbook, which can be reported as on of the very first recorded work of slave songs. There were three main, notable authors; William Francis Allen, Charles Pickard Ware, and Lucy McKim Farrison. Harvard graduate, William Francis Allen was a classical scholar from Northborough, Massachusetts. Charles Pickard Ware, also a Harvard graduate was an educator, music transcriber, and an abolitionist. Finally and probably most importantly (because she was the only true musician on the team) Lucy McKim Garrison was from Philadelphia and served as a song collector. These three people were monumental in the preservation of this important music. They took in upon themselves to document the music of our people.

My Thoughts

I have also been a fan a Negro Spirituals, they connect me to my past and teach me what not to allow in my future. Whether I learned them in church, choir, or somehow because of my race I just knew them, Negro Spirituals have been a part of my life for as long as a can remember. I am blessed to say that I get to sing and learn a new one frequently because I am apart of the Spelman College Glee Club. We get to travel all over and remind our people and people outside of our race what it was like to be a slave. How with the words of the bible and the African influence of hand clapping and knee slapping, our ancestor were able to survive. They were able to give us the strength to get through any hard times we have know with their songs of hope and their fight for freedom.

Listen to Learn


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