Kennedy Starkey

The Essence of Negro Spirituals

Spirituals are indeed one of the most integral musical elements of Black History. Originating from the souls of beloved African slaves, spirituals constitute much of the history of African American folk song.

As slaves were quickly converted to Christianity upon reaching the Americas, their music began to reflect that of Christian values and beliefs. As a result, spirituals  are often religious works inspired by Biblical influences. 

Though this style of music dates back to early African enslavement, its essence is still very much apart of today’s African American culture.

Elements of Spirituals

Negro Spirituals are a multifaceted style of music. Whether accompanied by shouting, dancing, instruments, etc. spirituals constitute much of the rich history of African music.

Ring Shout

A common style of spirituals that typically reflect a circular dance followed by clapping and chanting

Call and REsponse

Often performed as a slave work song through field hollers followed by chants or various other phrases

Arranged spirituals

Commonly arranged for performances, concerts, solos, and/or expressed with piano accompaniment  (aka concert spirituals)

Social Implications

Negro spirituals were a huge means of self reflection. Dating back to the era of enslavement, spirituals gave slaves the chance to express their feelings, beliefs, struggles, etc., while simultaneously uniting them under the tense of musical liberation. It created a social atmosphere that allowed for the display of retold Biblical narratives that paralleled the lives of Africans slaves.  Such display became a form of worship that help to combat the brutal institution of slavery. 

Important Performers

Marian Anderson was an extremely talented vocalist who's talented was celebrated as the one of the greatest of the twentieth century.
Marian Anderson
Wallis Willis is celebrated for composing numerous spiritual works. He is recognized by his famous spiritual, "Swing Low, Sweet Chariot".
Wallis Willis
Paul Robeson was a concert artist who was very influential in promoting the spread of negro spirituals. He is also honored as a civil activist.
Paul Robeson
Concert Artist


Much of slaves’ work was done for little to no commodification to  benefit them.  As was the case with their spirituals, numerous songs and lyrics were stolen and composed into a book titled, “The 100 Slave Songs of the U.S.” In turn, these works were sold anonymously thus leaving no commodification for the original creators. 

Influences of Future Genres

Gospel Music

Due to their Christian influence, Negro Spirituals were considered a heavily religious style of music. Consequently, such elements later helped shape the powerful genre that is gospel.

Gospel Music

Though contemporary gospel music was not sung in the era of slavery, its Biblical message and religious value deeply parallel the elements of Negro spirituals.

Conclusory Opinions


“African American Spirituals.” Planning D-Day (April 2003) – Library of Congress Information Bulletin, Victor,

United Methodist Communications. “Part of History, African-American Spirituals Still Heal.” The United Methodist Church, 24 Feb. 2014,

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