Not So Sweet Chariots

Negro spirituals are a sacred genre of black music. They are religious songs often associated with southern Black Christians, tying back to African-American slaves. These songs were used to tell stories, escape the hardships of slavery, and convey messages. They told stories of promised lands in Heaven. They gave hope of the Savior to relieve them of their troubles. They kept morale alive and even saved the lives of thousands of Black Americans both throughout and after slavery.

What began as a means of keeping morale alive and talking to God, ended up as a secret means of code and communication between slaves. Negro spirituals served as a pivotal part of the underground railroad system, allowing runaway slaves to send messages to one another without the interference of plantation owners. One of the most famous negro spirituals “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot”, is full of hidden messages of escaping. Other songs with similar messages include “Wade in the Water” and “The Gospel Train”. During this time, these songs did far more than make the promise of redemption, but rather gave instruction for it instead. Negro spirituals were also an important part of the Civil Rights Movement as well. With Black churches at its core, these spirituals were the used as the fight songs of the people of the movement.

As we can see, Negro spirituals have historically been songs of protest; first from slavery, then from segregation. They went on to inspire and be the foundation of a newer genre of music, Gospel, in which it continues to be its main influence with the messages of God and religion at its core. Songs such as “Wade in the Water” continue to reinvent themselves over and over in music today.


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