The story of the negro spirituals is closely linked to the History of African Americans, with its three milestones:
the abolition of slavery
Between 1865 and 1925
Slavery was abolished in 1865. Then, some African Americans were allowed to go to school and be graduated. At Fisk University, one of the first universities for African American, in Nashville (Tennessee), some educators decided to raise funds for supporting their institution. So, some educators and students made tours in the New World and in Europe, and sang negro spirituals (Fisk Jubilee Singers). Other Black universities had also singers of negro spirituals: Tuskegee Institute, etc.
Just after 1865, most of African Americans did not want to remember the songs they sung in hard days of slavery. It means that even when ordinary people sang negro spirituals, they were not proud to do so.
In the 1890s, Holiness and Sanctified churches appeared, of which was the Church of God in Christ. In these churches, the influence of African traditions was in evidence. These churches were heirs to shouts, hand clapping, foot-stomping and jubilee songs, like it was in plantation “praise houses”.
At the same time, some composers arranged negro spirituals in a new way, which was similar to the European classical music. Some artists, mainly choruses, went abroad (in Europe and Africa) and sang negro spirituals. At the same time, ministers like Charles A. Tindley, in Philadelphia, and their churches sang exciting church songs that they copyrighted.Between 1925 and 1985
In the 1920s, the Black Renaissance was an artist movement concerning poetry and music. “It was an evidence of a renewed race-spirit that consciously and proudly sets itself apart”, explained Alan Locke. So, the use of dialect was taboo, in this movement. The “race-spirit” infused the work of musicians and writers like Langston Hughes. For the first time, African Americans realized that their roots were deep in the land of their birth.
The Black Renaissance had some influence on the way of singing and interpreting negro spirituals. First, the historical meaning of these songs were put forward. Then, singers were pushed to be more educated.
For example, in early Twentieth century, boys used to sing negro spirituals in schoolyards. Their way of singing was not sophisticated. But educators thought that negro spirituals are musical pieces, which must be interpreted as such. New groups were formed, such as the Highway QC’s (QC : Quincy College), and sung harmonized negro spirituals.
This constant improvement of negro spirituals gave birth to another type of Christian songs. Thesewere inspired by the Bible (mainly the Gospel) and related to the daily life. Thomas A. Dorsey was the first who composed such new songs. He called them Gospel songs, but some people say “Dorseys”. He is considered as being the Father of Gospel music.
It is of interest to see that, during this period, African Americans began to leave the South and went North. Then, Gospel songs were more and more popular in Northern towns, like Chicago.
Between 1915 and 1925, many African American singers, like Paul Robeson, performed either at church or on stage, or even in movies, then negro spirituals were considered mainly as traditional songs. In the late 1930s, Sister Rosetta Tharpe dared sing Gospel songs in a nightclub. This was the very start of singing Gospel songs in many kinds of places: churches, theaters, concert halls. The number of quartets was high, at that time.
At the same time, some preachers and their congregations were also famous; some of them recorded negro spirituals and Gospel songs. Ministers, like James Cleveland, made tours with their choruses, in the United States and abroad.
In the late 1950s and early 1960s, before and during rallies for Civil Rights, demonstrators sang negro spirituals. For example, “We Shall Overcome” and “This Little Light of Mine” were popularAfter 1985
The first Dr Martin Luther King's Day was celebrated in 1985; it became a national holiday in 1992. This event is a milestone in the history of African American: it shows that the African American community is a part of the US nation. This Day is included in the month, when Black History is celebrated through various events.
Since that first King’s Day, Negro spirituals have been considered as being pieces of the American heritage. So, they are often in the programs of events reminding Black History.
It appears that today everyone may perform Gospel music in the United States. The main issue is to know how to improve the African American integrity in singing negro spirituals and other Christian songs.
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