Coming home, the Black spiritual

Wed, 1800-11-19

On this date, we focus on Black spiritual music in America.

Many Black spirituals resulted from the white folk music tradition and many others have melody analogues in white American and British folk music. The borrowing of melodies with pentatonic (five-note) and major scales is especially well known. The voice quality, vocal effects, and the type of rhythm accompaniment that Black spirituals use is where the difference begins and ends. Black spirituals were sung not only in worship but also as work songs, and the lyrics often reflect physical hard work as well as spiritual inspiration.

Musically, the complex combination of African and white folk music elements reinforced each other. The call-and-response pattern occurs in both, as do certain scales and the uneven inflections of certain notes. Clear African influence can be heard and felt in vocal style and in the obvious complex polyrhythmic clapped accompaniments. African tradition also included polyphonic and choral singing. The ring shout (a religious dance usually accompanied by the singing of spirituals and clapped rhythms) comes from African ancestry. The lyrics of Negro spirituals are tightly linked with the lives of their authors: Slaves.

While work songs dealt only with their daily life, spirituals were inspired by the message of Jesus Christ and his Good News (Gospel) of the Bible, “You can be saved.” They are different from hymns and psalms, because they were a way of sharing the hard condition of being a slave. Many slaves in towns and in plantations tried to run to a “free country” that they called “my home” or “Sweet Canaan, the Promised Land.”

This country was on the Northern side of Ohio River that they called “Jordan.” Some Negro spirituals refer to the Underground Railroad, an organization that helped slaves run away. After the Civil War, the Black spirituals were "discovered" by Northerners and harmonized versions were either developed, often sung by trained choirs, or the older traditional style was preserved, especially in rural areas and certain sects. Like the white Gospel song, the modern Black gospel song is a descendant of the spiritual and is accompanied by musical instruments.

Black gospel music is interrelated to secular Black music (as is the spiritual to the work song and blues) and often includes jazz rhythms, instruments, and dance alongside traditional clapped accompaniment.

In the 1920s, during the Harlem Renaissance, “It was an evidence of a renewed race-spirit that consciously and proudly sets itself apart,” explained Alan Locke. The use of dialect was taboo in the beginning of this movement. The “race-spirit” infused the work of musicians and writers like Langston Hughes. For the first time, African-Americans realized that their roots were deep in the land of their birth. The Harlem Renaissance took hold and had some influence on the way of singing and interpreting Negro spirituals. First, the historical meaning of these songs was put forward.

Then, singers were pushed to be more educated. For example, in early 20th century, young boys used to sing Negro spirituals in schoolyards. Their way of singing was not sophisticated, but elders and educators thought that Negro spirituals were musical pieces, which must be interpreted as such. New groups at the time were formed, such as the Highway QC’s (QC: Quincy College), and they sang harmonized Negro spirituals. This constant improvement of Negro spirituals gave birth to another type of Christian song, inspired by the Bible (mainly the Gospel) and related to the daily life.

Thomas A. Dorsey was the first person to compose such new songs. He called them Gospel songs, but some people say “Dorsey’s songs.” He is considered the Father of Gospel music. During this period, Blacks began to leave the South during the “Great Migration” and Gospel songs were more and more popular in Northern towns like Chicago.

Between 1915 and 1925, many Black singers, like Paul Robeson, performed either at church, on stage, or in movies. Negro spirituals were considered mainly as traditional songs. In the late 1930s, Sister Rosetta Tharpe dared sing Gospel songs in a nightclub. This was the very beginning of singing Gospel songs in varied venues: churches, theaters, and concert halls and the number of groups grew at that time.

At the same time, some preachers and their congregations were also celebrated; many recorded Negro spirituals and Gospel songs. Ministers like James Cleveland made tours with their choruses, in the United States and abroad. In the late 1950s and early 1960s, before and during rallies for Civil Rights, demonstrators sang Negro spirituals as a natural support and kinship. For example, “We Shall Overcome” and “This Little Light of Mine” were popular. Though Gospel songs are usually composed, the melodies are taken from improvisational bases in church services. In a similar way, popular songs are improvised upon in the tradition of jazz.

Since the first Martin Luther King Day in 1986, Negro spirituals have been considered pieces of the American heritage, and are often in the programs of events reminding all of Black History. Today everyone performs Gospel music in the United States. The main issue is to know how to improve the African-American integrity in singing Negro spirituals and other Christian songs.

An Encyclopedia of African American Christian Heritage
By Marvin Andrew McMickle
Judson Press, Copyright 2002
ISBN 0-817014-02-0