A Comparison of White And Negro Spirituals

By: Valencia White & Keris Lewis

Negro Spirituals

Definition:  a type of religious folk song that is most closely associated with the enslavement of African people in the American South created in the 1860s.

Negro Spirituals served as a means for enslaved people to express themselves. Spirituals derive from the bible and could be dated back to the early 1860s when it was officially published and recognized as a genre. Many spirituals were religious in nature, as enslaved Africans and African Americans were not allowed to practice worship in public, leading to practices such as bush meetings where they would worship in the woods in hiding. Negro spirituals served an integral part in the lives and the welfare of the enslaved African Americans. Similar to storytelling, many lyrics of the spirituals denoted actions, times, or locations: all as a means of communication that could not be silenced by slave owners.

White Spirituals

Definition: A genre far less well recognized than its “negro spiritual” cousin, encompasses the folk hymn, the religious ballad, and the camp-meeting spiritual created in the 1930s.

Officially recognized as a genre in the 1930s through the publication of White Spirituals in the Southern Uplands by George Pullen Jackson, white spirituals are comprised of hymns, ballads, and spirituals. Its religious background causes it to share origin and symbolism with negro spirituals

Negro Spirituals vs White Spirituals

  • Black spirituals are known for their rambunctious and lively musical structures and practices including ring shouts, call and response, syncopations, and polyrhythmatic melodies.
  • White spirituals are most similar to folk music, there is an everpresent southern drawl to many of the songs. A common instrument amongst hite spirituals are guitars or banjos, both identifiable by the sharp sound of their strum.Banjos are most frequently used, in tandem with their folk reputation. 
  • While both can be classified as folk, the differing timbres of the genres is what makes them distinctly different.