The Gospel Truth about the Negro Spiritual

Guest Posting

 but it was immediately apparent that the answer was far from simple. First, it is complicated by the fact that both exist because of a deep-seated need to express faith in song. Solfeo

Secondly, one genre has used the other for source material. Also, the history of one genre blends into the other.

The times and environment in which the spiritual was nurtured were starkly different than that of black gospel music. Gospel music is clearly rooted in the spiritual, and Gospel musicians have drawn on the spiritual for source material. But are gospel songs simply “jazzed-up” spirituals? What is the “gospel truth?”

The Negro Spiritual: From Cotton Field to Concert Hall

Negro spirituals are songs created by the Africans who were captured and brought to the United States to be sold into slavery. This stolen race was deprived of their languages, families, and cultures; yet, their masters could not take away their music.

Over the years, these slaves and their descendents adopted Christianity, the religion of their masters. They re-shaped it into a deeply personal way of dealing with the oppression of their enslavement. Their songs, which were to become known as spirituals, reflected the slaves’ need to express their new faith.

The songs were also used for secret communication without the knowledge of their masters. This was particularly the case when a slave planned to escape bondage via the Underground Railroad.

Spirituals were created extemporaneously and were passed orally from person to person. They were improvised as suited the singers. There are approximately 6,000 spirituals; however, the oral tradition of the slaves’ ancestors—and the prohibition against slaves learning to read or write—meant that the actual number of songs is unknown.

With the end of the American Civil War in 1865, most former slaves distanced themselves from the music of their captivity. The spiritual seemed destined to be relegated to slave narratives or to a handful of historical accounts by whites who had tried to notate the songs they heard.

The performance of spirituals was reborn when a group of students from newly founded Fisk University of Nashville, Tennessee, began to tour to raise money for the financially strapped school. The Fisk Jubilee Singers carried spirituals to parts of the U.S. that had never heard Negro folksongs, and they performed before royalty during tours of Europe in the 1870’s. Their success encouraged other Black colleges and professional singers to form touring groups. Collections of plantation songs were published to meet the public demand.

While studying at the National Conservatory of Music, singer and composer Harry T. Burleigh came under the influence of the Czech composer Antonín Dvořák. Dvořák visited the United States in 1892 to serve as the conservatory’s new director and to encourage Americans to develop their own national music. Dvořák learned of the spiritual from Burleigh and later recommended that American composers draw upon the spiritual for their inspiration.

In 1916, Burleigh wrote “Deep River,” for voice and piano. His setting is considered to be the first work of its kind to be written specifically for performance by a trained singer.

“Deep River” and other spiritual settings became very popular with concert performers and recording artists, both black and white. It was soon common for recitals to end with a group of spirituals. Composers published numerous settings of Negro spirituals specifically for performance on the concert stage, and solo and choral singers successfully recorded them for commercial release.

Additionally, the spiritual has given birth to a number of other American music genres, including Blues, Jazz and gospel. Spirituals played a major role of buoying the spirits of protesters during the Civil Rights Era of the 1950’s and 1960’s.

The Music

Spirituals fall into three basic categories:

Call and response – A “leader” begins a line, which is then followed by a choral response; often sung to a fast, rhythmic tempo (“Ain’t That Good News,” “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot”)

Slow and melodic – Songs with sustained, expressive phrasing, generally slower tempo (“Balm in Gilead,” “Calvary”)

Fast and rhythmic – Songs that often tell a story in a faster, syncopated rhythm (“Ev’ry Time I Feel the Spirit,” “Joshua Fit the Battle of Jericho”)

Related Posts

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *