Negro Spiritual: The Bedrock of Modern Comtemporary Music

Group photograph of Fisk Jubilee Singers – Source: Detroit Public Library Digital Collections

Negro Spiritual which is otherwise known as Spiritual songs are songs created by Africans that were sold out to slavery in America. The African slaves experienced severe torments by their American Masters and the only way they could probably find hope and succour was in the Bible.

While in slavery, they were forced into Christianity by their Masters and they grasped the religion with open arms as it brought hope of redemption and liberty to them.
The central themes of Spiritual songs were:
1. Freedom
2. Suffering
3. Liberty etc.

With spiritual songs, the African slaves narrated the suffering they were going through and also showed optimism that just like the biblical Jews were freed from the stronghold of the Egyptians, they too will be free..
Spiritual songs were mostly derived from the Bible as it was the only hope they had if they will be freed.

There is no specific date for the inception of Negro Spiritual though some writers and historians have coined a date due to speculations and assumptions. This lack of clear cut date is necessarily because the slaves were prohibited from attending schools and were all illiterates and thus the spiritual songs were sung orally and was also taught orally without any documentation of notes or whatever.
Negro spiritual started as melodic songs (Unison) and later on harmonic (with parts).

Spirituals were call and response in which the soloist will sing a line or phrase while others will respond. The rhythmic contour of spirituals however, were complex.

Composer and Music Director Hall Johnson

Moreover, with the signing of the proclamation of Emancipation in the year 1863, the 13th ratification of the Constitution amendment and even the conclusion of the civil war which abolished slavery and slave trade officially, the Negros officially gained their freedom from slavery and this was a morale boost for the Negros globally.

Popular spiritual songs include:
1. I feel like a motherless Child
2. He’s got the whole world in His Hands
3. Swing low, sweet chariot
4. Every time I feel the spirit
5. Let us break bread together on our knees
6. Nobody knows the trouble I’ve seen
7. Steal Away
8. Wade in the water
The list above is to mention but a few spiritual songs done by African-Americans.

Characteristics of spiritual songs are:
1. Call and Response: This attribute is the most pronounced of all characteristics of spiritual songs. It was a way the Negro slaves could share in their agony while in captivity.
2. Melodic and Slow: Some songs depicted melancholic mode after all no one would be in captivity and not be sad. Songs like ‘Balm in Gilead is a good example of this characteristic.
3. Fast and Rhythmic: Some spiritual songs were however fast and energetic. The rhythm of these kind of songs were often syncopated and complicated as it will tell stories while they are working.Joshua fit the battle of Jericho is a good example.
4. Lyrics: the lyrics were basically derived from the biblical old testament characters including David, Solomon, Joshua, Caleb and the rest.
Also note that syllables of words were often shortened to suit the syncopated rhythm of their music in parlance of the gab created by the disjointed rhythmic flow. For example, they’d say ‘haav’n instead of heaven.

In a more civilized clime, Negro spiritual has given birth to very many genres of music like jazz, gospel and even blues.

2. “Music in America,” Harper’s 90 (1895): 432. By Antonin Dvorak
3. “Notes on the Negro Spiritual,” (1965). In Readings in Black American Music , comp. and ed. by Johnson

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