Negro spirituals were the first uniquely American music to come out of this country. European classics, Anglo ballads, hymns, and Irish jigs and reels dominated American music until the slaves created their songs of sorrow and hope to sustain them while the institution of slavery lasted. Spirituals were created over a 200-year period, but not until after the Civil War were most Americans aware of their existence. This music, so rich and varied, so deeply emotional and expressive, is a testament to the strength and tenacity of the African people who adapted to and enriched all of American culture.

How did white Christian slave owners reconcile their religion with slavery, the kidnapping, buying and selling of human beings? First of all, they didnít consider slaves to have souls since they were possessions like cattle or horses. Secondly, since the Bible offered many examples of slavery, this somehow gave it a religious sanction in their minds. No attempts were made to teach slaves to read, write or observe formal religion since any improvement in communication skills could lead to organized rebellion. After the Nat Turner slave revolt in 1832, strict curfews were enforced and slaves were required to show passes to hired patrols in their travels from one plantation to another. Hereís a bit of a song from that era:

††††††††††† Run, nigger, run, the patrolíll

††††††††††††††††††††††† get you

††††††††††† Run, nigger, run, itís almost break

††††††††††††††††††††††† of day

Music, especially in the fields during long hours of physical toil, was encouraged . The slaves, it was notice worked harder and longer when they sang and the music seemed to keep up their spirits. Not much attention was paid to the lyrics and as a result, a wide range of expressive lyrics gave vent to the slavesí desires for a better life in this world as well as in the next.

†††† There is a balm in Gilead to make

††††††††††††††††††††††† the wounded whole.

††††††††††† There is a balm in Gilead to heal

††††††††††††††††††††††† the sin-sick soul.

††††††††††† One of these mornings bright and fair,

††††††††††† Iím gonna lay down my heavy load.

††††††††††† Gonna kick my wings and cleave the air,

††††††††††† Iím gonna lay down my heavy load.

Slaves used spirituals to affirm their humanity and to give them hope, faith and courage to go on living when life to seemed to be nothing but endless physical toil, punishment and deprivation.

If reading was forbidden, listening wasnít, and slaves caught snatches of hymns outside the slave ownerís churches. Out of little scraps of Biblical text and bits and pieces of a psalms and hymns, hundreds of new and beautifully repetitious songs were fashioned and reworked until they became beautiful folk poetry.

†††† Mary wore three links of chain,

††††††††††† Every link was Jesusí name;

††††††††††† Keep your hand on that plow, hold on.

††††††††††† Hold on. Hold on.

††††††††††† Keep your hand on that plow, hold on

From 1800 to 1825 blacks were exposed to the religious music of poor whites at camp meetings on the everóexpanding frontier. Presbyterian, Methodist and Baptist evangelist preachers delivered sermons of hope and individual salvation which coincided with the slavesí longing for freedom on earth. Since singing about freedom was considered a criminal act, the lyrics were couched in ambiguous phrases so that they were clear to the slaves, yet cryptic to the slave owners at the same time.

Run to Jesus, shun the danger,

I donít expect to stay much longer here.


††††††††††† Steal away, steal away, steal away to Jesus,

Steal away, steal away home.

I ainít got long to stay here.

The slaves identified with Biblical figures who suffered and overcame severe adversity. The Jews were slaves in Egypt, but with Godís help they gained their freedom. Jesus, Moses, Samson, David and Joshua were real people with real problems. Might not history repeat itself? How long would oppression be allowed to triumph? This abiding belief in the righteousness of their cause ennobles the spiritual with a driving power, a personal belief in Godís redemption and a belief in the eventual justice and goodness of humanity.

There ainít but the one train on this track,

All night long.

Straight up to heaven and straight right back.

Do Lord, deliver poor me.

Spirituals can be divided into three types: "Deep River," "Balm in Gilead," and "Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child" are suffused with feelings of self pity and a longing for change. Others are bolder in their call for freedom. "Joshua Fought the Battle of Jericho," "Swing Low, Sweet Chariot" and "Iím On My Way to Canaanís Land" use phrases that are popular in many spirituals. "Going to heaven," "coming for to carry me home" and "crossing the river Jordan" are all symbolic in their cry for freedom as well as salvation in the afterlife. Still other spirituals openly advocated running away.

When the sun comes back and the first quail calls,

Follow the drinking gourd.

††††††††††† For the old man is a-waiting to carry you to freedom

If you follow the drinking gourd.

This song is actually a map and timetable for the Underground Railroad. It tells the slave to follow the Big Dipper in the sky. This points to the North and freedom. "Go Down Moses" and "Wade in the Water" are other, examples of spirituals containing coded messages of escape. Finally, during the Civil War, black troops created new and more militant spirituals that openly espoused freedom and direct action. These had a newófound power and boldness.

Oh freedom, oh freedom,

Oh Freedom over me.

And before Iíll be a slave,

Iíll be buried in my grave,

And go home to my Lord and be free.

1865 saw the end of the Civil War and in 1867 Slave Songs of the United States, the first major collection of Negro spirituals, was published. It was generally ignored by professional music magazines, but in 1871 the Fisk Jubilee Singers, in an attempt to raise money for Fisk University in Nashville, Tennessee, gave concerts in Europe and America and helped make American Negro spirituals become extremely popular. Anton Dvorak, the Czech composer, also brought spirituals to the attention of the world through his New World Symphony, his attempt to create an orchestral setting for folk melodies. Gradually, the general American public became aware of the rich black religious tradition within the dominant white Protestant culture and the dialog between black and white musical traditions began. Negro spirituals are Americanís first great musical contribution to the world.


TOM FAIGIN is a guitar and banjo teacher in the San Fernando Valley since 1960 and is on staff of many schools, music organizations, and colleges. He lectured on American folk Music from 1982-1989 at Cal. State Los Ange1es.