A spiritual song is a certain kind of religious folk song that is closely related to the enslavement of the African people, particularly in the American South. These songs escalated quickly during the last few decades of the eighteenth century until the time that legalized slavery was abolished in the 1860s. These days, African American spiritual songs are considered one of the largest and most important forms of American folk song.

Spiritual Songs Sung by African Slaves

Some of the famous spiritual songs include “Deep down in my heart” and the song composed by Wallis Willis, “Swing low, sweet chariot.” The term “spiritual” actually originated from the King James Bible, specifically in the verse Ephesians 5:19: “Speaking to yourselves in hymns, psalms, and spiritual songs, singing and creating melody in your heart to the Lord.” This form of music was first introduced in the eighteenth century by the African slaves during informal gatherings held in praise houses as well as in outdoor meetings, also known as camp meetings, bush meetings, or brush arbor meetings.

The people who joined these meetings usually chant, sing, dance, and even experience ecstatic trances. These spirituals can also be performed in the form of ring shout, wherein the participants perform a circular dance while hand-clapping and chanting. This is a common practice among the early plantation slaves. A great example of a spiritual song sung in this particular style is “Jesus Leads Me All the Way,” which was recorded by Henrietta Yurchenco in 1970.

Africans Like to Create Spiritual Songs

In Africa, the center of people’s lives is actually music. Creating music has become an important part of their daily activities and life events. However, the white settlers of North America did not approve of this African way of worship since they considered it pagan and wild. 

Because of this, the gatherings were often prohibited and had to be done secretly. In the seventeenth century, Christianity was initially introduced to the African people in the American colonies. At first, these people had a hard time grasping religion. 

But later on, the slaves became captivated by the stories contained in the Bible, which reflected their own lives. As a result, they began creating spirituals that describe popular Biblical figures, such as Moses and Daniel. As the slave population became part of Africanized Christianity, these spirituals became a way of expressing their new faith, as well as their hopes and sorrows.

Typically, spirituals were sung in the form of call and response, where the leader will improvise a line of text and a group of singers will sing a solid refrain in harmony. Since the vocal style is performed in free form, it is a challenge for these spirituals to be documented accurately. 

Most spirituals that are categorized as sorrow songs tend to be gloomy, slow, and intense. Songs such as “Nobody knows the trouble I’ve seen” and “Sometimes I feel like a motherless child,” depict the struggles of the slaves and sufferings of Jesus Christ. On the other hand, there are also joyful spirituals, also known as camp meeting songs or jubilees, which are rhythmic, fast, and most often constricted. Some examples of these songs include “Fare Ye Well”, and “Rocky my soul in the bosom of Abraham.” 

Spirituals as Codified Protest Songs

Sometimes, these spirituals are considered codified protest songs. Songs such as “Steal away” are believed to be inciting escape to slavery. During the mid-nineteenth century, the Underground Railroad used a secret language that aims to free the slaves. Because of this, it is often contemplated that songs such as “I got my ticket” might mean a code for escape. However, it is difficult to prove since helping to free slaves is illegal. However, the song, “Go down, Moses,” is specifically used as a code for escaping to freedom. In fact, it was used by Harriet Tubman to depict herself to slaves who sought to flee north. 

In his book, “My Bondage and My Freedom”, Frederick Douglass, a former slave, and a nineteenth-century author, talked about performing spirituals during the period of his bondage. He revealed that a smart observer might have observed their singing of the song “O Canaan, sweet Canaan, I am bound for the land of Canaan” over and over again. It gives them hope of reaching heaven. They intended to go North, and North was their Canaan.

Concerts of Spirituals

When collections of spirituals were published in the 1860s, more and more people became interested in the spirituals. In the 1870s, the Jubilee Singers were introduced. It is a chorus that is composed of former slaves who come from Fisk University. 

Its creation sparked an instant interest in this musical form. The group had several scheduled tours all over Europe and the United States which included performances of spirituals. Fortunately, they were well received by their audiences. 

While there are some African Americans who are not interested in continuing the tradition of slavery anymore, singers from Fisk University have insinuated that it should be continued. Bands from different parts of the country started to imitate the Jubilee singers, making this type of musical performance a concert hall tradition that remained popular to this day.

One of the first ensembles that became a rival of the Jubilee Singers was the Hampton Singers. Since it was founded in 1873, it already earned a worldwide following during the early and mid-twentieth centuries. Its longtime conductor was R. Nathaniel Dett who is also well known for his outstanding conducting abilities as well as for his original compositions and fervent arrangements of spirituals. Notable composers such as Roland Carter, Wendell Whalum, Moses Hogan, and others have made Acappella arrangements of spirituals, taking this musical form to the next level beyond its traditional folk song roots.

Because of the Fisk University Jubilee Singers, more and more people are becoming aware of the African American spirituals through their recordings and concerts. This ensemble is being directed by John W. Work, Jr., who is also the first African American to gather and publish spirituals.

The Introduction of Gospel Music

The presence of spirituals at concerts gives way to the development of several works done by composers such as Henry T. Burleigh, who made piano-voice arrangements of spirituals during the early twentieth century. His arrangements were intended for solo classical singers. 

Afterward, a lot of composers have followed Burleigh’s footsteps. In fact, during the 1920s and 1930s, classical artists such as Paul Robeson, Roland Hayes, and Marian Anderson have focused on spirituals in their repertoires. 

As of today, this tradition has continued, with classical artists such as Jessye Norman and Kathleen Battle performing spirituals in their recitals. While the presence of spirituals can be felt in concert halls, its popularity in the Black church has decreased during the twentieth century due to the increased popularity of Gospel music. 

Although the lyrics of spirituals are still preserved in gospel songs, its musical forms have transformed dramatically since tunes are arranged and harmonies are added in such a way that it fits the new performance styles. Despite these changes, traditional spirituals have continued to survive in some congregations of the South that are far from modern influences, or simply want to preserve the older songs.

Most of these spiritual recordings that were created between 1933 and 1942 are still preserved in the American Folklife Center collections located at the Library of Congress. This collection includes amazing works such as “Run old Jeremiah,” recorded by J. W. Brown and A. Coleman, and “Eli you can’t stand,” which features lead singer Willis Proctor. Most of the recordings of these spirituals can also be found online including “Come by here,” which is now known as “Kumbahya.”

What is White Spiritual?

There is also another version known as the “white spiritual” genre. Although it is less recognized than its counterpart, it includes camp-meeting spirituals, religious ballads, and folk hymns. White spirituals have similar origins with African American spirituals and also share the same musical elements and symbolism. In 1943, the Lincoln Park Singers performed “I’ll fly away,” which was recorded by Willis James and composed by Albert E. Brumley, a white man. This field recording only proves that there is a connection between black and white spirituals.

It was in the 1930s when the white spiritual genre started to emerge. During this time, George Pullen Jackson, who is a professional at Vanderbilt University, published the book White Spirituals. This book is just part of a series of studies that focuses on the existence of white spirituals. Black spirituals differ from white spirituals in a lot of ways. For instance, they make use of counter-rhythms, syncopation, and flatted notes. Black spirituals also stand out due to the striking vocal timbre of the singers that includes shouting and exclamations along with shrill falsetto tones.

Spirituals for Protests

Spirituals were quite significant during the twentieth and early twenty-first centuries since they are usually used for protests. Gospel songs and spirituals also played a significant role during the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 1960s, since it offered support to the civil rights activists. 

Most of the freedom songs during this time including “Eyes on the Prize” and “Oh, Freedom!” were mostly adapted from old spirituals. It was the group Reverb who performed both of these songs during their concert at the Library of Congress in 2007. The torch song of the movement is “We Shall Overcome,” along with the spiritual “I’ll Be All Right.” combined with its gospel song “I’ll Overcome Someday.” 

These spirituals have made a great contribution to freedom songs. They have also helped highlight the fight for democracy in different countries all over the world including Russia, China, Eastern Europe, and South Africa. Today, some of the popular pop artists have continued to rely on the spirituals when it comes to creating protest songs. Some great examples include Billy Bragg’s “Sing their souls back home” and Bob Marley’s “Redemption Song.”

For more spiritual songs, you can visit Angelus Music at https://www.angelusmusic.com/.