This site is devoted to traditional African American spirituals, and some information is given about the early Gospel songs. The six parts of this site are

Songs, the tunes and the lyrics of spirituals at various periods

History, how the spirituals change is linked to the History of African American

Singers at various periods

Composers during and after the slavery period

Search gives the lyrics of over 200 traditional spirituals

Shop to acquire books and records of spirituals

Before 1865

The tunes and the beats, before 1865

The tunes and the beats of negro spirituals and Gospel songs are highly influenced by the music of their actual cultural environment. It means that their styles are continuously changing.

The very first negro spirituals were inspired by African music even if the tunes were not far from those of hymns. Some of them, which were called “shouts” were accompanied with typical dancing including hand clapping and foot tapping.

SHOUTS
After regular a worship service, congregations used to stay for a “ring shout”. It was a survival of primitive African dance. So, educated ministers and members placed a ban on it. The men and women arranged themselves in a ring. The music started, perhaps with a Spiritual, and the ring began to move, at first slowly, then with quickening pace. The same musical phrase was repeated over and over for hours. This produced an ecstatic state. Women screamed and fell. Men, exhausted, dropped out of the ring

Some African American religious singing at this time was referred as a “moan” (or a “groan”). Moaning (or groaning) does not imply pain. It is a kind of blissful rendition of a song, often mixed with humming and spontaneous melodic variation.

The lyrics before 1865

In the early nineteenth century, African Americans were involved in the “Second Awakening”. They met in camp meetings and sang without any hymnbook. Spontaneous songs were composed on the spot. They were called “spiritual songs” and the term “sperichil” (spiritual) appeared for the first time in the book “Slave Songs of The United States” (by Allen, Ware, Garrison, 1867).

As negro spirituals are Christian songs, most of them concern what the Bible says and how to live with the Spirit of God. For example, the “dark days of bondage” were enlightened by the hope and faith that God will not leave slaves alone.

By the way, African Americans used to sing outside of churches. During slavery and afterwards, slaves and workers who were working at fields or elsewhere outdoors, were allowed to sing “work songs”. This was the case, when they had to coordinate their efforts for hauling a fallen tree or any heavy load. Even prisoners used to sing “chain gang” songs when they worked on the road or on some construction project.

But some “drivers” also allowed slaves to sing “quiet” songs, if they were not apparently against slaveholders. Such songs could be sung either by only one soloist or by several slaves. They were used for expressing personal feeling and for cheering one another. So, even at work, slaves could sing “secret messages”. This was the case of negro spirituals, which were sung at church, in meetings, at work and at home.

The meaning of these songs was most often covert. Therefore, only Christian slaves understood them, and even when ordinary words were used, they reflected personal relationship between the slave singer and God.

The codes of the first negro spirituals are often related with an escape to a free country. For example, a “home” is a safe place where everyone can live free. So, a “home” can mean Heaven, but it covertly means a sweet and free country, a haven for slaves.

The ways used by fugitives running to a free country were riding a “chariot” or a “train”.

The negro spirituals “The Gospel Train” and “Swing low, sweet chariot” which directly refer to the Underground Railroad, an informal organization who helped many slaves to flee.

The words of  “The Gospel train” are “She is coming… Get onboard… There’s room for many more”.  This is a direct call to go way, by riding a “train” which stops at “stations”.

Then, “Swing low, sweet chariot” refers to Ripley, a “station” of the Underground Railroad, where fugitive slaves were welcome. This town is atop a hill, by Ohio River, which is not easy to cross. So, to reach this place, fugitives had to wait for help coming from the hill. The words of this spirituals say,“I looked over Jordan and what did I see/ Coming for to carry me home/ A band of angels coming after me”

Here is an example of a negro spiritual and its covert meaning:

THERE IS A BALM IN GILEAD

This is a well-known negro spiritual, which has an interesting meaning.

The “balm in Gilead” is quoted in the Old Testament, but the lyrics of this spiritual refer to the New Testament (Jesus, Holy Spirit, Peter, and Paul). This difference is interesting to comment. In the Old Testament, the balm of Gilead cannot heal sinners. In the New Testament, Jesus heals everyone who comes to Him.

So, in the book of Jeremiah, several verses speak about Gilead. In chapter 22, v. 6 and 13: The Lord says (about the palace of the king of Judea) “Though you are like Gilead to me, like the summit of Lebanon, I will surely make you like a desert, like towns inhabited… Woe to him who builds his palace by unrighteousness, making his countrymen work for nothing, not paying them for their labour”.

In the same book of Jeremiah, chapter 46, v. 2 and 11, “This is the message (of the Lord) against the army of Pharaoh Neco … Go up to Gilead and get balm, O Virgin Daughter of Egypt, but you multiply remedies in vain; here is no healing for you”.

In the New Testament, the four Gospels say that Jesus healed many people whatever their conditions: he can heal the poor. A Christian who feels the Spirit must share its faith and “preach”, like Peter and Paul.

 

Between 1865 and 1925

The lyrics between 1865 and 1925

Spirituals were sung at churches with an active participation of the congregation (as it is usual in a Pentecostal church).  Their lyrics mainly remain similar to those of the first negro spirituals.

They were often embellished and they were also called either “church songs” or “jubilees” or “holy roller songs”. But some hymns were changed by African American and became “Dr Watts”

Dr WATTS

Dr Isaac WATTS was an English minister who published several books: « Hymns and Spiritual Songs », in 1707, “The Psalms of David” in 1717. The various Protestant denominations adopted his hymns, which were included in several hymnals, at that time.

Missionaries reported on the “ecstatic delight” slaves took in singing the psalms and hymns of Dr Watts.

In his book “The Religious Instruction of the Negroes in the United States” (1842), the White minister Charles Colock Jones recommended highly some hymns of Dr Watts (“When I Can read My Title Clear”, etc.). He wrote: “One great advantage in teaching them (slaves) good psalms and hymns, is that they are thereby induced to lay aside the extravagant and nonsensical chants, and catches and hallelujah songs of their own composing”.

However, in the early 1800s, Black ministers took seriously the admonition of Dr Isaac Watts: “Ministers are to cultivate gifts of preaching and prayer through study and diligence; they ought also to cultivate the capacity of composing spiritual songs and exercise it along with the other parts of the worship, preaching and prayer”. So, homiletic spirituals were created by preachers and taught to the congregation by them or by deacons.

During the post-Civil War period and later, some congregation conducted services without hymnbooks.  A deacon (or precentor) set the pitch and reminded the words in half-singing half-chanting stentorian tones. The people called their songs “long-meter hymns (because the tempo was very low) or “Dr Watts”, even if they have not been written by this gentleman.

The particular feature of this kind of singing was its surging, melismatic melody, punctuated after each praise by the leader’s intoning of the next line of the hymn. The male voices doubled the female voices an octave below and with the thirds and the fifths occurring when individuals left the melody to sing in a more comfortable range. The quality of the singing was distinctive for its hard, full-throated and/or nasal tones with frequent exploitation of falsetto, growling, and moaning.

The beats of  Dr Watt’s songs were slow, while there are other types of spirituals. These beats are usually classed in three groups:
- the “call and response chant”,
- the slow, sustained, long-phrase melody,
- and the syncopated, segmented melody,
- “Call and response”

For a “call and response chant”, the preacher (leader) sings one verse and the congregation (chorus) answers him with another verse.

An example of such songs is “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot”:

SWING LOW SWEET CHARIOT

Lead: Swing low, sweet chariot
Chorus: Coming for to carry me home
Lead: Swing low, sweet chariot
Chorus: Coming for to carry me home
Lead: If you get there before I do
Chorus: Coming for to carry me home
Lead: Tell all my friends, I’m coming too
Chorus: Coming for to carry me home

- “Slow and long-phrase song

Here are some examples of negro spirituals with a slow, long-phase melody.

MP3
“I’m Troubled in Mind”, by Spiritual Workshop Paris, click here

- “Syncopated melody”

For the syncopated, segmented melody, the tempo is usually fast and the rhythm features a “swing”. This concerns spirituals sung at church, by a group (not by a soloist). The rhythm of such a spiritual is based on the swinging of head and body. The swaying of the body marks the regular beat, but more or less strict in time. The singer takes the fundamental beat, almost monotonously, with his left hand, while he juggles it with his right hand

MP3
Heaven” by JoAnne Stephenson, acc. Lorna Young-Wright click here

Between 1865 and 1925, many tunes were arranged as classical European pieces for choirs. Some negro spirituals had been sung during worship services.

Here are negro spirituals sung by a congregation during a worship service.

MP3
“His eye is on the sparrow”, click here


Between 1925 and 1985
The lyrics between 1925 and 1985

As traditional negro spirituals continued to be sung, new Gospel songs were created. The lyrics of these new songs dealt with praising the Lord, with personal improvement and with brotherly community life. Many of them were inspired by social problems: segregation, lack of love, drugs, etc.

For the struggle for Civil Rights, in the 1960s, negro spirituals like “We shall overcome”, “Oh Freedom” and “This Little Light of Mine” used to be sung.

Sometimes the words of traditional negro spirituals were slightly changed and adapted to special events. For example, the words of “Joshua Fought the Battle of Jericho (and the walls came tumbling down)” were changed into “Marching ‘round Selma”.

MARCHING ‘’ROUND SELMA

Marching ‘round Selma like Jericho,
Jericho, Jericho
Marching ‘round Selma like Jericho
For segregation wall must fall
Look at people answering
To the Freedom Fighters call
Black, Brown and White American say
Segregation must fall
Good evening freedom’s fighters
Tell me where you’re bound
Tell me where you’re marching
“From Selma to Montgomery town

During this period, some Gospel songs were more secular. They were included in shows like “Tambourine to Glory” (by Langston Hughes). In the 1970s, mainly Edwin Hawkins («Oh Happy Day») created the «pop-gospel». This type of singing needs several instruments to accompany the singers who are often assembled in choirs.

The music between 1925 and 1985

Between 1925 and 1985, negro spirituals were sung in local communities. Some scientists, such asAlan Lomax and John Lomax, collected them, as they were spontaneous performed.

At the same time, composers, such as John W. Work, arranged their tunes. Some of these composers , such as Jester Hairston, were influenced by the Black Renaissance. This means that their arrangements were influenced by the European classic music.

After 1925, artists created Gospel songs, which were either “soul” or “hard beat”. The number of instruments accompanying singers increased.

After 1985
Some composers, such as Moses Hogan, arranged traditional negro spirituals.

The new Gospel songs created after 1985 are of two types. The first type concerns songs, which are for either worship services or special events in churches. The second type includes songs, which are for concerts. They are more or less secular even when they speak of Christian life.

This section is organized
by Spiritual Workshop, Paris (France)
Mail to :
mailto:question@negrospirituals.com