The Spirit of my People: Negro Spirituals

Origins and Influences

Negro spirituals originated in the slave populations of America. As one can imagine it is very hard to pinpoint an exact location and time of origin as Negro spirituals were not recorded and were given like gifts from generation to generation by word of mouth. The genre was clearly influenced by the folk music directly preceding it but shouldn’t be credited to white Methodists and protestants as many would lead one to believe. Its influence on other genres however, is more clear, after all !!!


Call and response – We’ve heard of the call and response element before in African American folk music where it operated in the same way it operates within negro spirituals. A leader or soloist calls or sings out a line and a chorus (back then just consisting of the rest of the congregation) respond. This can be heard in the video below of the Fisk Jubilee singers.

Hand Clapping and Foot Stomps – Hand clapping and foot stomps might seem insignificant at first due to their tendencies to be seen with every genre but they played a very special role in negro spirituals. In these sings, the body movements substituted some of the percussion that’s so often present in African American music. Whether percussion wasn’t available because instruments had been confiscated or because slaves were forced to hold “invisible churches” to hide from masters, our people have always found a way to make it work.

Ring Shouts – Ring Shouts consisted of a group of people moving counterclockwise while expressing their love for worship and God through dancing, stomping, clapping, and more.

Double Entendre Text – The same way that African American folk music sometimes had two meanings, negro spirituals did too. While singing of a land called heaven that was desired by all, they could be singing of going to a land where they would be free.

Higher Levels of Repetition – This element is still very much heard in gospel music today so it only makes sense that it is a prominent element in the negro spiritual genre.

Lengthy Songs (Continuation)– Lengthy songs were a common characteristic of negro spirituals,this element stemmed from the indefinite continuation that would often ensue when African American slaves came together to worship.

Polyrhythmic Foundations – Polyrhythmic foundations have origins in West and Central Africa which, according to the previous genre as well as the homes of the slave population in American makes sense.

Primary Composers/ Performers

Harry T. Burleigh

- The first person to arrange spirituals for a soloist in 1916 - Wrote Jubilee Songs of the U.S. (1916)
- Began tradition of closing recitals with a group of spirituals

Paul Robeson

- The first person to perform a concert comprised entirely of negro spirituals
- Bass Baritone
-Very successful actor and singer, on stage and in film
- Used platform to challenge oppression

George White

- Fisk University Treasurer responsible for Fisk University's Jubilee Singers
- Founded the group in 1871 and used them to raise money for the school

Social Implications and Commodification

Negro spirituals, especially in the earliest points of relevance, were socially unaccepted. People such as John Watson and Daniel Alexander Payne went out of their way to spew hatred of a form of worship different than their own. It wasn’t until later, when the publishing of things such as “Slave Songs of the United States” and “Jubilee Songs of the U.S.” that the tides began to turn. This slight change allowed for certain African Americans to profit, as was their right. Paul Robeson made money performing them at concerts while the Fisk University Jubilee Singers made enough profit to help keep their  beloved HBCU afloat.

Negro Spirituals, in my opinion, are the things that black America needed. Negro Spirituals paved the way for blacks to be seen as artistic beings capable of beautiful creation. It is the seemingly most progressive genre in African American music. We begin the genre with slaves singing them, no record of the songs and no way to know who wrote what. We then step into an error where not only are the spirituals being published and written but by black people! Black people like Paul Robeson and the Fisk Jubilee singers are able to perform and travel and profit. It is a far cry from earlier scenes. Negro Spirituals and the transformation that occurred during their time period is an amazing testament to the perseverance of the black community.

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