Negro Spirituals – The Voices of a Thousand Tongues

“God told Moses, oh Lord! Go Down into Egypt, oh Lord. Tell ol’ Pharoah, oh Lord! Loose my people!” - Little David, Play on Your Harp H.T. Burleigh


  • There hasn’t been a hard effort to preserve spirituals so there’s probably many other books of spirituals that have yet to be found. Books of “Slave Songs” often do not list authors or editors so it’s also hard to find who is responsible for pioneering this genre.
  • These songs have their roots in Africa, where music was everything, even though the lyrics are often religious.
  • Enslaved Africans work songs became spirituals, which eventually the roots for virtually every genre to come. I.e. Blues, Jazz, Hip-Hop and Rap. to name a few

Characteristics of the genre

  • Double entendre: double meaning, some spirituals were about heaven but at the same time, talked about escaping.
  • Lyrics of the spiritual, “Lord How Come me Here” help slaves to process their realities by expressing the pain associated with their lives. “They stole my children away Lord, I wish I never way born.”
  • Many express hope for a life of redemption beyond”
  • Call and response
  • Syncopation

Social Implications

  • “Phonetic english” used in spirituals helped to develop what we now consider, (AAV) African American Vernacular.

Important Performers & Composers

  • Harry Thacker Burleigh (1866-1949)
  • Robert Nathaniel Dett (1882-1943)
  • Edward Boatner (1898-1981)
  • First group to sing negro spirituals commercially is the Fisk Jubilee singers during the late 19th century. They performed these songs across the United States to raise money for their school. Sharing both their art and the depths of their struggles with the world. 

Commodification & Influences of future genres

  • Now that more spirituals are being found, books of “Slave songs” are being sold and mass produced across the united states.
  • Spirituals pioneered the recurring theme in black music with regards to the act of to talking about struggles unique to the black community,  through music. 

Conclusory opinions

 The negro spiritual allowed enslaved Africans to create for themselves an identity through the revitalization of musical characteristics and beliefs from their mother country, and through creating a unique way of worshiping God through practicing their religion in a separate way from what the white oppressors were teaching them. The music created by enslaved Africans conveys a greater sense of passion and urgency for spiritual awakening that would influence African-Americans in music for generations to come.

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