Spirituals were religious songs made by enslaved African Americans, with the earliest documentation dating back to the 18th century. Although a significant amount of slaves had converted to Christianity, the way they interpreted the religion was different from their white counterparts. Spirituals were a symbol of hope and freedom, a conscious effort to be culturally connected to their roots, while praying and singing about their sorrows.
Call and Response – A singr or instrumentalist makes a musical statement, answered by someone else
Invisible Church – Sites where slaves worshipped in secret without white supervision
Hymns – Metrical compositions in strophic form, typically eight bars of rhyming couplets, loosely based on biblical scripture
Congregational Participation – Slaves were expected to participate during preaching and singing
Double Entendre – Song text with double meanings
Ring Shout – A form of folk spiritual characterized by leader–chorus singing, and hand clapping, which incorporates highly stylized religious dance as participants move in a circle
Polyrhythm – Several contrasting rhythms sung simultaneously
The way that spirituals were viewed differed between Blacks and Whites. The Whites saw the religious practice among slaves as “a growing evil”, and felt as though they ruined Christian music. They perceived the spirituals as “often miserable and senseless as matter”. For the slaves, their secret meetings and spirituals were preferred over the standard church, where they were able to express themselves how they saw fit.
Because spirituals were performed by slaves and handed down orally, there is no way to trace back to its original creators/performers. However, their voices have made their mark in American history, and have been carried through other genres.
Dating back to the 17th century, there have been Whites who have documented their sighting of slaves performing their spirituals. It was often met with judgement and distaste, as the Whites did not try to understand the meanings of these performances.
Negro spirituals paved the way for future genres such as R&B, Folk, and Blues, where African Americans are able to express their troubles through song.
I am always amazed at the strength of our ancestors, and how they were able to find moments of relief amidst their state of bondage. I was not surprised at the comments made by observing Whites of their spirituals. However, they managed to still find the time and place to express themselves.