What Are Black Spirituals

Do you have a favorite song? What makes you like it? Perhaps you enjoy dancing to its catchy beat or the lyrics that remind you of someone special. Most likely, you appreciate the sound and the underlying message. Today’s Wonder is centered around music that is filled with deeper meaning – spirituals.

Curious to know what spirituals are? Spirituals are a genre of songs, often referred to as Black spirituals because they were initially sung by enslaved individuals in the United States. The term “spiritual” can be associated with “religious,” which provides a clue about the nature of these songs. Spirituals are religious songs that are also known as religious folk songs. Folk music is a traditional form of music that is passed down through generations.

Black spirituals have their roots in both African music traditions and European hymns. (Hymns are another type of religious songs.) When enslaved people were forcefully taken from Africa, they were forcibly separated from their homes and culture. Music played a central role in the daily lives of many West African cultures. However, enslavers did not allow enslaved Africans to sing or dance in their traditional ways, so they had to do so in secret. Singing and dancing became ways for Africans to hold onto their culture.

Enslavers introduced African slaves to Christianity. Initially, most enslaved people wanted to maintain their own beliefs. However, over time, many enslaved individuals began to see their own experiences mirrored in the stories of the Bible. The story of Moses leading the slaves to freedom in Egypt is one example. In the 1700s, slaves in the U.S. started composing and singing spirituals. They combined elements of their traditional music with European Christian elements, resulting in one of the earliest forms of American art – spirituals.

Spirituals have a distinct structure. Many of them utilize call-and-response, where one singer starts (the “call”) and others respond. This is a traditional African musical form that enslaved individuals adapted to their new circumstances. You may be familiar with call-and-response from children’s songs like “Boom Chicka Boom” or “Princess Pat.” Spirituals also incorporated clapping, chanting, and dancing. One type of spiritual, known as a “ring shout,” involved clapping and dancing in a circle. Composers blended these African elements with Christian lyrics to create spirituals.

Some Black spirituals are also referred to as “sorrow songs.” You may recognize songs like “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot” or “Nobody Knows the Trouble I’ve Seen.” These songs have a slow and melancholic sound. In these songs, enslaved individuals express their sadness and struggles. Others are more upbeat, as singers imagine a better future and freedom. Enslaved people may have sung these songs during church meetings, often held outdoors and referred to as “bush meetings” or “camp meetings.”

Many spirituals have hidden meanings. Harriet Tubman, for example, used the song “Go Down, Moses” to assist many enslaved individuals in escaping via the Underground Railroad. Enslaved composers used Christian symbolism to convey messages that they couldn’t openly express. For instance, “Moses” could represent someone who would deliver them from slavery. The River Jordan often symbolized the Ohio River, which served as a dividing line between slave states and free states. Enslavers might be referred to as “Pharaoh,” and slave-holding states as “Egypt.” Canaan stood for the free states. By using these symbols, enslaved individuals could ensure their safety while communicating with each other.

In the 1800s, a small number of individuals started composing and gathering spiritual music. These songs gained significant popularity among white Americans. Some even falsely believed that enslaved people sang spirituals because they were happy. However, former enslaved individuals like Frederick Douglass debunked this misconception.

Following the Civil War, groups of Black singers emerged and began performing spirituals for audiences. One of the most renowned ensembles was the Jubilee Singers, comprised of formerly enslaved individuals who attended Fisk University in Tennessee. They achieved great fame and embarked on tours across the United States and Europe.

While spirituals are not frequently sung today, they heavily influenced various other genres of music. Black musicians in the South built upon spirituals to create blues and jazz music. In turn, other musicians drew inspiration from these genres, leading to the development of rock ‘n’ roll. Even modern hip-hop can trace its roots back to Black spirituals. Take a moment to listen to some spirituals and see how they resonate with you. You might even discover a new favorite song!

Try It Out

Now, let’s dive into some musical exploration! Grab a friend or family member and try the following activities:

  • Listen to a collection of recorded Black spirituals from the Library of Congress. Find one that resonates with you and write a journal entry explaining why you like it and what it means to you. Afterward, share your favorite song and journal entry with a friend or family member!
  • Can you identify “call-and-response” elements in modern songs? (Refer back to the 5th paragraph of this Wonder for a reminder!) With the help of an adult, use the Internet or visit your local library to find modern songs that incorporate call-and-response. Are there any songs you already know? Then, create a poster using Canva or materials you have at home to explain call-and-response to others, using examples you found. Share your poster with a friend or family member.
  • Let the spirit of spirituals inspire you to create other forms of art! Listen to recordings of Black spirituals here or explore other spirituals you enjoy. While listening, use materials available at home to create visual art. You can depict what you imagine the composer looked like or capture the imagery evoked by the song. Alternatively, let the music spark your own unique ideas! You can find examples of how Black spirituals have influenced art here, here, or here. Share your creation with a friend or family member and invite them to listen to the spiritual that inspired you.

Wonder Sources

  • https://www.britannica.com/dictionary (accessed 03 Feb., 2023)
  • https://www.loc.gov/collections/songs-of-america/articles-and-essays/musical-styles/ritual-and-worship/spirituals/ (accessed 23 Jan. 2023)
  • https://www.nytimes.com/2021/03/05/t-magazine/black-spirituals-poetry-resistance.html (accessed 23 Jan. 2023)
  • https://balladofamerica.org/spirituals/ (accessed 23 Jan. 2023)

FAQ

1. What are black spirituals?

Black spirituals are religious songs that originated among African Americans during the period of slavery in the United States. These songs were a means of expression and communication, often serving as a source of hope and consolation for enslaved individuals. Black spirituals were characterized by their powerful lyrics, rhythmic melodies, and distinct vocal styles. They encompassed themes of freedom, faith, and resilience, reflecting the experiences and struggles of African Americans. Over time, black spirituals have had a significant impact on various genres of music, including gospel, blues, and jazz.

2. How did black spirituals originate?

Black spirituals have roots in the African culture brought to America by enslaved Africans. Under the harsh conditions of slavery, African Americans used music as a way to cope with their circumstances and express their emotions. Combining elements of African music and Christian hymns, black spirituals emerged as a unique form of musical expression. These songs were often created spontaneously during religious gatherings, where enslaved individuals would sing and dance as a form of worship and communal bonding.

3. What themes are present in black spirituals?

Black spirituals encompass a range of themes that reflect the experiences and aspirations of African Americans during slavery. These themes include freedom, liberation, hope, faith, and the desire for a better future. The lyrics often conveyed hidden messages and double meanings, allowing enslaved individuals to express their longing for freedom while avoiding detection by slaveholders. Black spirituals also tackled the hardships of slavery, the importance of community, and the belief in divine intervention and justice.

4. What impact did black spirituals have on American music?

Black spirituals had a profound influence on American music, shaping various genres that followed. The rhythmic patterns and call-and-response style of black spirituals laid the foundation for gospel music, which emerged in the early 20th century. Gospel music, in turn, influenced the development of blues and jazz. The emotional intensity and the use of personal narratives in black spirituals also influenced the lyrical content and storytelling in later genres. Moreover, the powerful vocal techniques and harmonies of black spirituals continue to inspire contemporary artists and choirs.

5. How were black spirituals passed down through generations?

Black spirituals were primarily an oral tradition, passed down from one generation to another through singing and oral transmission. Enslaved individuals would teach the songs to their children and community members, ensuring their preservation and continuity. The songs were often learned and performed in secret, as slaveholders discouraged any form of cultural expression among enslaved individuals. Despite these challenges, black spirituals endured and evolved over time, with new songs being created and incorporated into the repertoire.

6. Are black spirituals still performed today?

Yes, black spirituals are still performed today, both in traditional and contemporary settings. They continue to be an important part of African American musical heritage and are often sung in churches, concerts, and cultural events. Many choirs and vocal groups specialize in performing black spirituals, keeping the tradition alive. The messages of hope, faith, and resilience conveyed in these songs still resonate with audiences, and their historical significance serves as a reminder of the strength and resilience of African Americans throughout history.

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