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Negro Spirituals

spirituals

The precise origins of many of the great spirituals which form the basis of gospel - here are just a few : "Study War No More", "Deep River", "Go Down, Moses", "Joshua Fit De Battle Of Jehrico", "Nobody Knows The Trouble I See", "Steal Away", "Balm In Gilead", "Farther Along", "Were You There ?" - are lost in obscurity. What is known is that the majority of what used to be called "corn ditties" arose during camp meetings and informal gatherings outside plantation praise houses in the early 18th century, the result of a mixing of European psalms and hymns particularly those of Isaac Watts and the Methodist tradition ) and traditional West African music and dance.
The slaves identified closely with many of the European hymns they heard, hearing in them both an expression of spiritual devotion and a yearning for freedom from bondage which mirrored their own. In a sense they took them to their heart and made them their own, creating from them their own uniquely powerful and moving musical treasures. Alongside the work songs which helped to ease the drudgery and physical hardship of their daily tasks, spirituals provided a measure of comfort and hope to a downtrodden people in a foreign land. It is also apparent now that some, for example "Gospel Train" and "Swing Low, Sweet Chariot", contained code words referring to the "Underground Railroad", an informal organisation that helped slaves escape north to freedom across the Ohio River.
Spirituals and work songs together form the bedrock from which two of the most important influences on modern popular music, namely blues and gospel were later to develop.

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Note : A new and highly plausible theory from Dr.Willie Ruff proposes that the Gaelic psalm singing of early white settlers influenced the development of early spirtituals. Essentially the theory argues that 18th century settlers into North Carolina from the Western Isles of Scotland brought with them a Presbyterian tradition of "lining out", a call-and-response tradition whereby a lead voice would be followed by individual freestyle improvisations by individual members of the congregation, rather than a group response. As these settlers became slave traders and masters the tradition was adopted by their slaves as they worshipped together ( in separate areas of the same church ). Indeed, psalm singing was the first form of worship the slaves encountered in this part of America, and many slaves were taught the Gaelic language. The adopted tradition then became "Africanised", and evolved into the form of the early spiritual.


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