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A spiritual is an African American song, usually with a Christian religious text. Originally monophonic and a cappella, these songs are antecedents of the blues. The terms Negro spiritual, Black spiritual, and African-American spiritual are all synonyms; in the 19th century the term jubilee was more common (at least among African-Americans; whites often called them slave songs). Some musicologists call them African-American folk songs.


Historical background

Spirituals were often expressions of religious faith, although they may also have served as socio-political protests veiled as assimilation to white, American culture. They were originated by African slaves in the United States. Slavery was introduced into the European colonies in 1619, and slaves largely replaced indentured servants as an economic labor force during the 17th century. This labor force would remain in bondage for the entire 18th century and much of the 19th century. They were set free with the ratification of the Thirteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution by United States Secretary of State William Henry Seward on December 18, 1865. The Amendment was passed by Congress January 31, 1865, and was ratified by 27 of the then 36 states.

During slavery in the U.S., there were systematic efforts to de-Africanize the captive black workforce. Slaves were forbidden to speak their native languages, to play drums, or practice their mostly Animist and Muslim faiths. They were urged and often forced to become Christians by slavemasters who often used Christianity as a tool of control.

Scholars debate the degree to which Christianity among African slaves in the U.S. was a syncretic faith, but there is no doubt blacks suffused their practice of religion with African religious beliefs and customs. The imprint of Africa was evident in the oral and musical traditions in the style and cadence of liturgical delivery, and in call and response in song and sermon; in the use of blue notes and syncopation in musical expression and dance styles; in the sometimes exuberant, but always very personal and democratic, self-expression through testifying, possession and speaking in tongues; and in full-immersion baptism. In comparison with the worship style of whites, Africanized Christianity was often lively, loud and spontaneous.

It was not long before further restrictions were placed on the religious expression of slaves. Rows of benches in places of worship discouraged congregants from spontaneously jumping to their feet and dancing. The use of musical instruments of any kind often was forbidden, and slaves were ordered to desist from the "paganism" of the practice of spiritual possession. Nonetheless, the Christian principles that teach those who suffer on earth hold a special place with God in heaven undoubtedly spoke to the slaves who saw this as hope and could certainly relate to the suffering of Jesus.

Because they were unable to express themselves freely in ways that were spiritually meaningful to them, slaves often held secret religious services. During these “camp meetings” and “bush meetings,” worshippers were free to engage in African religious rituals such as spiritual possession, speaking in tongues and shuffling in counterclockwise ring shouts to communal shouts and chants. It was there also that slaves further crafted the impromptu musical expression of field songs into the so-called "line signing" and intricate, multi-part harmonies of struggle and overcoming, faith, forbearance and hope that have come to be known as "Negro Spirituals."

While slaveowners used Christianity to teach slaves to be long-suffering, forgiving and obedient to their masters, as practiced by slaves, it became a kind of liberation theology. The story of Moses and The Exodus of the "children of Israel" and the idea of an Old Testament warrior God who struck down the enemies of His "chosen people" resonated deeply with slaves ("He's a battleaxe in time of war and a shelter in a time of storm"). In black hands and hearts, Christian theology became an instrument of liberation.

So, too, in many instances did the spirituals themselves. Spirituals sometimes provided comfort and eased the boredom of daily tasks, but above all, they were an expression of spiritual devotion and a yearning for freedom from bondage. In song, lyrics about the Exodus were a metaphor for freedom from slavery. Songs like "Steal Away (to Jesus)", or "Swing Low, Sweet Chariot" raised unexpectedly in a dusty field, or sung softly in the dark of night, signalled that the coast was clear and the time to escape had come. The River Jordan became the Ohio River, or the Mississippi, or another body of water that had to be crossed on the journey to freedom. “Wade in the Water” contained explicit instructions to fugitive slaves on how to avoid capture and the route to take to successfully make their way to freedom.[1] Leaving dry land and taking to the water was a common strategy to throw pursuing bloodhounds off one's trail. “The Gospel Train”, and “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot” all contained veiled references to the Underground Railroad, and "Follow the Drinking Gourd" contained a coded map to the Underground Railroad. The title itself was a reference to the Big Dipper, which pointed the way to the North Star and freedom.

"Swing Low, Sweet Chariot" is one of the best known spirituals:

Swing low, sweet chariot,
Coming for to carry me home,
Swing low, sweet chariot,
Coming for to carry me home.
I looked over Jordan, and what did I see?
Coming for to carry me home,
A band of angels coming after me,
Coming for to carry me home.
If you get there before I do,
Coming for to carry me home,
Tell all my friends I’m coming, too.
Coming for to carry me home.
I’m sometimes up and sometimes down,
Coming for to carry me home,
But still my soul feels heavenly bound,
Coming for to carry me home.
The brightest day that I can say,
Coming for to carry me home,
When Jesus washed my sins away,
Coming for to carry me home.
- Traditional

Choral arrangements of the spiritual

With the advent of Harry Burleigh (1866–1949), the spiritual began to develop into a sophisticated art form. Burleigh attended the conservatory in New York City that was founded by Jeannette Thurber. Seeking to attract a prestigious faculty, Thurber had asked Czech composer Antonín Dvořák to head her conservatory; Dvořák agreed to do so, on the condition that talented Native American or African American composers be allowed to attend without paying tuition. Burleigh was accepted as a student, and became Dvořák's protegé, during which time he sang the traditional spirituals for Dvořák. With Dvořák's encouragement, Burleigh began to compose classical song and choral arrangements of spirituals, which were later made famous by artists such as the Fisk Jubilee Singers, Marian Anderson, Robert McFerrin Sr., and William Warfield. Another notable artist who had a successful career singing classical music and spirituals was Roland Hayes. In fact he made history by coming to Boston from Georgia to study voice, but was faced with obstacles all along the way. He never gave up and became the first African-American singer to sing in Boston's Symphony Hall. He went on to sing to great acclaim in Europe and throughout the United States. Today, the Roland Hayes School of Music, Boston's only and oldest high school of music, stands as a testament to his contribution to music and his people. Another great composer of classical settings of spirituals was Hall Johnson (1887–1970).

Some examples of spirituals which were set in this way are "Ride On King Jesus," "Ain't Got Time to Die," and "Hold On."


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Music Sound, v. 2.0, by MultiMedia

This guide is licensed under the GNU Free Documentation License. It uses material from the Wikipedia.

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