The precise start date of spirituals is unknown, but one could say they became popular in the late 1700s after the first Great Awakening. We can only track spirituals from the earliest accounts from slave owners. Its critical to mention that Spirituals and Hymns are not the same. Spirituals often include a call & response, polyrhythmic foundation, and lyrics linked to conditions. Enslaved people made spirituals as a means to cope with their treatment and the songs would have secret meanings at times. Spirituals were created for us and by us. Conversely, hymns were metrical compositions introduced by European Missionaries.
An example of a text that had a double meaning and encouraged enslaved people to flee is as follows:
Call: Run Mary, run! Oh-Tell Martha, run! Oh- Tell Martha, run, I say!
Response: You got a right to the tree of life
Folk Spirituals are the earliest form of indigenous a capella religious music created by Black people during slavery. It consisted of heterophonic textures and character irregular pulse. Another form was the Ring Shout: a type of folk spiritual
characterized by leader-chorus antiphonal singing, hand-clapping, and other percussion, which incorporates highly stylized religious dance as participants move in a counterclockwise circle. Examples of Folk Spirtuals and Ring Shouts are below.
The post-Civil War form of spirituals in a fixed, non-improvised form, which evolved in schools to educate emancipated slaves.
Ex. Spelman College Glee Club Spring Tour 2015 “Steal Away” Arr. Dr. Kevin P. Johnson.
Spirituals have functioned as religious and cultural expression for hundreds of years. Many original meanings hold true while also providing room for growth and reimagination. They serve as a blueprint because many musical genres borrow from the precedents that Spirituals set. They have been and will continue to be performed by millions of black people around the world due to their strong historical and religious background.