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African-American sacred folk songs are known as anthems, hymns, spiritual songs, jubilees, gospel songs, or spirituals, though the distinctions among these terms are not precise. Spiritual song was widely used in English and American tune books from the eighteenth century, but spiritual has not been found in print before the Civil War. Descriptions of songs that came to be known by that name appeared at least twenty five years earlier, however, and African-American distinctive religious singing was described as early as 1819.

Travelers and traders in Africa in the early seventeenth century described the musical elements that later distinguished African-American songs from European folk song: strong, syncopated rhythms reinforced by bodily movement, gapped scales, improvised texts, and the universal call-and-response form in which the leader and responding chorus overlapped. To white contemporaries, the music seemed wholly exotic and barbaric, although later analysts identified elements common to European music, such as the diatonic scale. The performance style of African music, quite distinct from familiar European styles, has persisted in many forms of African-American music to the present day.

Although the music of Africans has been documented in the West Indies and the North American mainland from the seventeenth century, conversion to Christianity was a necessary precondition for the emergence of the spiritual, a distinctive form of African-American religious music. Conversion proceeded slowly. Individual slaves were converted by the families with whom they lived in the seventeenth century, but on southern plantations, where most of the slaves lived, some planters opposed the baptism of their slaves because they believed that baptism would bring freedom. Moreover, plantations were widely separated, missionaries were few, and travel was difficult. Where religious instruction was permitted, however, the slaves responded with enthusiasm.

In the mid-eighteenth century, a few Presbyterian ministers, led by Samuel Davies of Hanover County, Virginia, made special efforts to convert blacks within their neighborhoods, teaching them Isaac Watts's hymns from books sent from England. Davies wrote in 1751, "The Negroes, above all the Human Species that I ever knew, have an Ear for Musick, and a kind of extatic Delight in Psalmody" (Epstein, 1977, p. 104). Whether the blacks injected a distinctive performance style he did not say.

Toward the end of the century, Methodist itinerants like Bishop Francis Asburytogether with his black exhorter, Harry Hosierheld protracted meetings that lasted several days and drew large crowds of blacks and whites. After 1800 the camp meeting developed on the frontier, where settlements were widely scattered. Black worshipers were present at the earliest camp meetingssometimes seated separately, but in close proximity to whites. In an atmosphere highly charged with emotion, both groups shared songs, parts of songs, and styles of singing in participatory services where large numbers of people needed musical responses they could learn easily and quickly. The call-and-response style of the Africans resembled the whites' time-honored practice of "lining out."

The first documented reports of distinctive black religious singing date from the beginning of the nineteenth century, about twenty years before the first organized missions to plantation slaves. Throughout the antebellum period, spirituals were mentioned in letters, diaries, and magazine articles written by southerners, but to most northerners they were quite unknown. As northern men and women went south during the Civil War, they heard spirituals for the first time. Newspaper reporters included song texts in their stories from the front. Individual songs were published as sheet music, although some editors were well aware that their transcriptions failed to reproduce the music fully. In a letter to the editor of Dwight's Journal of Music, Lucy McKim, an early collector and recorder of spirituals, wrote that "the odd turns made in the throat; and the curious rhythmic effect produced by single voices chiming in at different irregular intervals, seem almost as impossible to place on score, as the singing of birds, or the tones of an Æolian Harp" (21 [November 8, 1862]: 254255).

When a comprehensive collection of songs, Slave Songs of the United States, was published in 1867, the senior editor, William Francis Allen, wrote in the introduction: "The best we can do, however, with paper and types will convey but a faint shadow of the original. [T]he intonations and delicate variations of even one singer cannot be reproduced on paper. And I despair of conveying any notion of the effect of a number singing together" (Allen, 1867, pp. ivv). In effect, the notational system filtered out most of the characteristic African elements, leaving versions that looked like European music. Collectors of these songs had heard the music sung by its creators, and they fully realized how defective their transcriptions were. But they feared that the music would be lost forever if the transcriptions, however unsatisfactory, were not made.

The pattern of transcribing the music in conventional notation was followed in more popular collections of songs transcribed in the 1870s from the singing of the Fisk Jubilee Singers, the Hampton Singers, and other touring groups from black schools in the South. However, these tours of carefully rehearsed ensembles of well-trained singers introduced audiences in the North and Europe to versions of the spirituals that eliminated many of those characteristic elements that had so attracted Lucy McKim and William Allen. The singers had been trained in European music and felt a responsibility to reflect credit on the rising black population.

By the 1890s, spirituals had become widely popular, both in the United States and in Europe, in the versions sung by the college singers. In 1892 a Viennese professor of jurisprudence, Richard Wallaschek, in a book entitled Primitive Music, advanced the theory that the spirituals were "mere limitations of European compositions which the negroes have picked up and served up again with slight variations" (p. 60). He never visited the United States or Africa, and his knowledge of the music was wholly derived from the defective transcriptions in Slave Songs of the United States and minstrel songs. Never having heard the music, Wallaschek was unaware that there were elements that could not be transcribed, but his ideas were taken seriously by several generations of scholars.

The strongest statement of the white-origins school was made by George Pullen Jackson, a professor of German at Vanderbilt University, who explored with enthusiasm the so-called white spiritual. In his book White Spirituals of the Southern Uplands (1933), his discussion of black spirituals was based primarily on an analysis of transcribed versions. He cited priority in publication as certain proof of origin, overlooking the irrelevance of this fact for folk music, most especially for the music of a population kept illiterate by force of law. The whiteorigins theory is no longer widely accepted. Not until the advent of sound recordings was it possible to preserve the performance itself, including improvised details and performance style, for later study and analysis.

Concert arrangements of spirituals for solo singers and choirs have been made, most notably by Harry T. Bur-leigh, James Weldon Johnson and J. Rosamund Johnson, and William Levi Dawson. Spiritual thematic materials have permeated diverse genres of American music in the twentieth century.

The musical elements that distinguished African-American spirituals from Euro-American hymnody are virtually impossible to reproduce in standard musical notation. Variable pitches; irregular strong, syncopated rhythms; and freely improvised melodic lines presented insoluble problems to the collector before the age of recording. The performance style also included humming, or "moaning," in response to the solo performer (whether singer or preacher); responsive interjections; and ceaseless physical movement (patting, hand-clapping, foot-tapping, and swaying) in response to the music. The overlapping of leader and responding chorus provided a complex interplay of voice qualities and rhythms. Slurs and slides modified pitch, while turns in the throat, blue notes, microtones, and sighs were equally impossible to notate. Pentatonic scales, however, and flattened fourth or seventh notes could be captured in notation.

Textual elements covered a whole spectrum of concepts, from trials and suffering, sorrow and tribulations, to hope and affirmation. Events from both the Old and the New Testaments were described, including Elijah's chariot and Ezekiel's wheel, along with more common images such as trains, shoes, wings, harps, robes, and ships. Hypocritical preachers and sinners were scorned, while death, heaven, resurrection, and triumph were often invoked.

Besides the purely religious message, there were also hidden meanings in some spirituals, exhorting the singers to resistance or freedom. Songs such as "Steal Away," "Follow the Drinking Gourd," and "Go Down, Moses"with its refrain, "Let my people go"could be interpreted in at least two ways. References to crossing Jordan and the trumpet blast could have both religious and secular interpretations.

See also Folk Music; Gospel Music; Music in the United States


Allen, William Francis, Charles Pickard Ware, and Lucy McKim Garrison. Slave Songs of the United States. New York: A. Simpson, 1867. Reprint, Bedford, Mass.: Applewood, 1995.

Epstein, Dena J. Sinful Tunes and Spirituals: Black Folk Music to the Civil War. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1977.

Epstein, Dena J. "A White Origin for the Black Spiritual? An Invalid Theory and How It Grew." American Music 1 (1983): 5359.

Jones, Arthur C. Wade in the Water: The Wisdom of the Spirituals. Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1993.

Krehbiel, Henry Edward. Afro-American Folksongs: A Study in Racial and National Music. New York: Schirmer, 1914. Reprint, Portland, Me.: Longwood Press, 1976.

Lovell, John, Jr. Black Song: The Forge and the FlameThe Story of How the Afro-American Spiritual Was Hammered Out. New York: Macmillan, 1972.

Marsh, J. B. T. The Story of the Jubilee Singers; with Their Songs. London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1875.

Reagon, Bernice Johnson. If You Don't Go, Don't Hinder Me: The African American Sacred Song Tradition. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2001.

Southern, Eileen. The Music of Black Americans: A History, 3d ed. New York: Norton, 1997.

Ward, Andrew. Dark Midnight When I Rise: The Story of the Jubilee Singers, Who Introduced the World to the Music of Black America. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2000.

Spencer, Jon Michael. Protest and Praise: Sacred Music of Black Religion. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1990.

dena j. epstein (1996)
Updated bibliography