WHAT IS A NEGRO SPIRITUAL?
Black American spirituals provide one source for much of the textual content of today’s gospel music.
For more than a century, these Afro-American religious songs served as a dominant medium through
which the black American expressed his dissatisfaction with his station in life, vented his longing
desire to live as a free man, and humbly sought peace and salvation from God:
The songs of the slave represent the sorrows, rather than the joys, of his heart; and he is relieved by
them, only as an aching is relieved by its tears. Sorrow and desolation have their songs, as well as joy
and peace. Slaves sing more to make themselves happy, than to express their happiness.(1)
As another observer wrote:
They sang so that it was a pleasure to hear; with all their souls and with all their bodies in unison, for
their bodies wagged, their heads nodded, their feet stomped, their knees shook, their feet stomped,
their knees shook, their elbows and their hands beat time to the tune and the words which they sang
with evident delight. One must see these people singing if one is rightly to understand their life.
I have seen their imitators….who travel about the country painted up as negroes, and singing negro
songs in the negro manner, and with gestures, as it is said; but nothing can be more radically unlike,
for the most essential part of the resemblance fails—namely, the life. (2)
The method of compsosition, style of performance, and sociological significance of black spirituals are
vital parts of black life and are easily recognizable through the texts of spirituals. Strong evidence of
dissatisfaction with this life can be observed in the spiritual “Nobody Knows the Trouble I See”.
Additional examples of this discontent are expressed in such spirituals as “Didn’t My Lord Deliver
Daniel” in which blacks communicated directly with a God whom they believed would deliver them
from the evils of slavery, and “I’m Going to Live with Jesus” where they tried to assuage their
hardships and grasp some hope for a better future.
Concentrated on texts that gave attention to such important concerns of Black Christians as worldly
sorrows, blessings, and woes, as well as the joys of the after-life…He also allowed space for the
inevitable improvisation of text, melody, harmony, and rhythm so characteristic of Black American Folk
and popular music.(3)
Thomas A. Dorsey (1899- ) was greatly influenced by C. A. Tindley. In defense of his “bluesy”
songs, composed in a style similar to that of Tindley, he stated:
The message is not in the music but in the words of the song. It matters not what kind of music or
what kind of movement it has, if the words are Jesus, Heaven, Faith and Life then you have a song
with which God is pleased regardless of what critics and some church folk say.(4)
Because of the importance of the textual content, gospel singers started a revival of interest in the
spiritual during the World War II and Martin Luther King, Jr. eras. In the midst of these periods of
severe hardships and struggles, the gospel song, like the spiritual during slavery, was a source of
strength and vided twentieth-century gospel singers with words that were strong in their spiritual
convictions and carried a message of the social pressures and frustrations that had burdened black
Americans since slavery. Such a revival of interest serves to connect and pressures and frustrations
that had burdened serves to connect and preserve an oral tradition passed down from the earliest
existence of the spiritual that continued through the 1940s.
Three sections of the spirituals’ texts frequently borrowed for the texts of gospel songs are the chorus,
an incipit, and part of an inner verse. In addition to these direct borrowings, gospel texts often
substitute or omit some of the original words (see Appendix A).
“Oh, Give Way, Jordan” is found in the collection Hampton and Its Students, 1874, 1875, 1878.(5)
There are two parts, the chorus:
Oh, give way, Jordan, Oh, give way, Jordan
Oh, give way, Jordan, I want to go across to see my Lord
and the stanza:
Oh, I beard a sweet music up above
I want to go across to see my Lord
An’ I wish dat music would come here,
I want to go across to see my Lord.
The Negro Spiritual, sometimes referred to as plantation songs, sorrow songs or slave-songs,
originated from the innermost being of enslaved Africans who were captured from the West Coast of
Africa and transported to the Americas. While in bondage they were forbidden to talk or make musical
instruments that they had used in Africa but could sing whatever they felt. The gift of singing became
an invaluable tool of expression and a relief from the cruel and brutal existence of a slave-life. It is in
these simple African melodies, which, "sprang into existence," where the enslaved Africans expressed
their pain, anger, grief, faith and joy. Just as Africans communicated among themselves using drum
language in there own countries and tribes, so did the enslaved Africans continue to do in America by
using "cries," "hollers," "calls," "shouts," which eventually evolved into spirituals and work songs. To
the slave owner, it may have been entertaining to hear the slaves sing these "simple" songs of faith,
but for the enslaved person these songs were powerful messages of hope, a way of assuaging their
unfortunate plight in life and above all fighting to maintain the most basic form of human dignity that
would help them sustain and endure the arduous hardships of a slave existence. These plantation
songs united and strengthened the slaves and gave them an abiding faith and strong courage.
These simple melodies still cause people today to examine themselves, tap their toes, clap their
hands, shed tears, laugh, dance and shout. This music still has the ability to touch the human spirit
and have a lasting effect on one’s emotions and beliefs. The simplicity of the melodies makes room for
a singer to improvise during a performance, even if only a single note is added to the original melody
"as the spirit moves". This may vary greatly from one performer to another. In it's original form the
spiritual was free in form, rhythm, text, and performance styles and allowed for much variation from
singer to singer as it was passed on orally. Such characteristic features are typical and unique to the
Negro Spirituals. As stated in Slaves Songs In The United States,
"The best that we can do, however, with paper and types, or even with voices, will convey but a faint
shadow of the original. The voices of the colored people have a peculiar quality that nothing can
imitate; and the intonation 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."
"And what makes it all the harder to unravel a thread of melody out of this strange network is that, like
birds, they seem not infrequently to strike sounds that cannot be precisely represented by the gamut,
and abound in "slides" from one note to another, and turns and cadences not in articulated notes." "It
is difficult to express the entire character of these Negro ballads by mere musical notes and signs. 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 the score as the singing of birds or
the tones of an Aeolian Harp."
This performance of solo-unaccompanied Negro Spirituals is presented in a very unique form that will
add greatly to its enjoyment. Moses, with his rich voice, has carefully performed these songs with
natural interpretation and precision, which adds much to the simple but beautiful and rich melodies of
the African-American culture. One can hear an effective use of a wide vocal range, good diction,
precise rhythm and beautiful dynamics.
Anyone who has the desire to sing the Negro Spirituals will find this recording a useful tool for
learning. And for those who wish to listen to the music for the sake of satisfying the needs of the spirit
and soul, these Negro Spirituals will be the "Balm in Gilead" that will make you whole.
Of the many thousands of Spirituals that is said to exist within this vast body of African-American song
literature only nineteen are recorded in this collection. Included here are spirituals that well represent
three groups that are commonly use to catalogue these musical jewels. (1) The slow, sustained, long-
phrase melody include songs, "Nobody knows de trouble I see," and "My Lord what a mourning,"
performed with great depths of understanding and feeling. The variations of the melody, the meditative
mood and the occasional free rhythm bring out the beauty of the song. Added words and notes are
used in certain phrases as a way of personal but effective interpretation. Successful execution of this
performance practice is achieved only when the performer has true knowledge and understanding of
the song(s). The Spiritual, "I’m trying to get ready," is performed with a steady beat which reminds one
of listening to these people singing and stomping their feet on wooden floors of the old country church
as they fervently worshipped and praised God. Listen for the sincere desire to "try on my long white
robe". (2) The signal songs or "coded" spirituals are those with hidden or double meanings and oft-
times coded messages. Such songs were used often among the slaves to signal or give warning to
each other of some secret meeting, plan of escape or to avoid capture. Among these songs are, "And
He never said a mumbelin’ word," "Go down Moses," "Oh Freedom," and "Steal Away to Jesus."
(3) The "call and response chant" Spirituals with syncopated, segmented melody include, " I want to
be ready; or, walk in Jerusalem just like John," " Ev'ry time I feel the spirit moving in my heart I will
pray," and "A little more faith in Jesus." He creates a totally different mood with crisp rhythms,
syncopation and dynamics, with this well-known call and response form. These lively performances
bring out the joy in the singer’s heart and I am sure will be contagious.
The Negro Spirituals are very unique to the American music culture and I thank people like Oral
Moses who help to preserve this vital and significant music tradition.
Dr oral Moses