A Modern Look at Negro Spirituals

Negro Spirituals are religious folk songs that were commonly used amongst enslaved people and rose to popularity in the late 1700s following the first great awakening. This genre served as a means of expression of Christian values that otherwise had been diminished during slavery.

Negro Spirituals often served as an essential means of communication for the enslaved. Spirituals heavily enforced elements such as double entendres (texts that have double meaning) to hide their escape plans. Many negro spirituals included ring-shout, a musical style represented by hand clapping, percussion instruments, and leader and antiphonal chorus. Other elements identifiable to negro spirituals are call-and-response, low/slow melodies, and many of the songs were passionate and emotional.

As spirituals began to shift from the workforce and praise songs, the genre of spirituals started to spread widely throughout entertainment in the form of concert/arranged spirituals. The “reinvention” of this genre thrived even more so as many Christian entities took on the genre and reinterpreted it through gospel and praise, mimicking the popular hand-clapping and bodily movements popular during slave times. This enabled the rearrangement of many slave songs that eventually evolved into performance theater, such as organized acapella ensembles, as seen in the Fisk Jubilee Singers in the 1870s. HBCUs played a vital role in the popularization of Negro Spirituals and the impact these performances had on gospel music, decreasing the preservation of the authentic style of the negro spiritual, adding harmonies and arranged performance.

Black spirituals are known for their unruly musical structures and polyrhythmic melodies, including instruments such as guitars/banjos, tambourines, and drums. The differing timbres represented by Black and White spirituals are what separates them musically.

In the 20th century, composers such as Henry T. Burleigh trailblazed the path of American Art music, paving the way for Negro Spirituals to be performed on concert hall stages. These concerts displayed piano-voice arrangements of spirituals that were widely performed.

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