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Negro Spirituals: Earliest American Folk Songs

Updated on October 23, 2017
Negro Spirituals record cover
Negro Spirituals record cover

About Negro Spirituals

Negro Spirituals are both beautiful and meaningful and, as our earliest folk songs, they form an important part of our musical heritage. As Kim Ruehl points out, they are the earliest form of American folk music. The Spirituals or "spiritual songs" are also an important part of Christian worship as they are so listed in the Bible in Ephesians 5:19. Thus, they should be a part of every Christian's life, no matter the color.

The origin Negro Spirituals - (info. gleaned from Wikipedia)

  1. Through the 19th century and much earlier, The term "spiritual song" was used often in Christian communities, both black and white.
  2. The term, "Negro spiritual" first appeared in print in the 1860s, describing slaves as "using spirituals for religious songs sung sitting or standing in place, and spiritual shouts for more dance-like music."
  3. Though many of their rhythmical and sonic elements can be traced to African sources, Negro spirituals are a musical form indigenous and specific to the religious experience of Africans and their descendants in the United States They resulted from the interaction of music and religion originating in Africa with those originating in Europe.

Listen to this video ABOUT and containing Negro spirituals:

Christianity's influence:

Christian hymns and songs were very influential on the writing of African-American spirituals. Slave composers took material from older songs, such as Christian hymns, and the Bible to create something entirely new and special to the culture. Spirituals were not simply different versions of hymns or Bible stories, but rather a creative altering of the material; new melodies and music, refashioned text, and stylistic differences helped to set apart the music as distinctly African-American.

There is also a duality in the lyrics of spirituals. They communicated many Christian ideals while also communicating the hardship that was a result of being an African-American slave. The spiritual was often directly tied to the composer's life. It was a way of sharing religious, emotional, and physical experience through song.

Mahaliah Jackson sings spirituals
Mahaliah Jackson sings spirituals

Their religious significance:

They served primarily as expressions of the religious faith of a people. Some may also have been used for "socio-political protests veiled as assimilation to white American culture."

Read the Wikipedia article

Take a listen to some Negro Spirituals - Too many to put all of them here.

the underground railroad
the underground railroad

Did they contain coded messages?

(info. gleaned from Wikipedia)

Many popular books and internet sources state that these songs had explicit directions for fleeing slaves on avoiding capture, and on routes to take to make their way to freedom. "Wade in the Water" allegedly recommends...going through water... to throw off pursuing bloodhounds. "Song of the Free," "The Gospel Train" and "Swing Low, Sweet Chariot" are also supposed to contain veiled references to the Underground Railroad. Many sources claim that "Follow the Drinking Gourd" had a coded map to the Underground Railroad. Critics have challenged the authenticity of such claims, pointing to their "apparent lack of primary source material."

What do you think?

Did Negro Spirituals contain coded messages?

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