Spirituals: Definition, History & Artists

Instructor: Benjamin Olson
This lesson will explore the history and significance of spirituals. The development and basic features of this genre of folk music will be detailed and its influence on other genres will be considered.

Definitions and Historical Context

Spirituals are a genre of American folk music that articulate the suffering, longing, and religious passion of African Americans during slavery and its aftermath. Religious hymns, work songs, along with traditional African rhythms and chanting styles all contributed to the development of spirituals.

Spirituals are an excellent example of folk music. In modern parlance, the term 'folk music' is often used to describe virtually any type of music played on an acoustic guitar. Folk music is not, however, a style or genre of music; it is a process through which music is created and performed. As the folklorist Dan Ben-Amos has argued, folk music is created by a community over a period of time and must be understood in the cultural context in which it is collectively composed, adapted, performed, and experienced by audiences. Spirituals are a tradition that falls under this categorization very well and must be understood in the context of the African American slave experience.

History and Development

It is difficult to chart the earliest examples of spirituals as they emerged in the oppressive context of plantation slavery. During the 18th century, virtually any manifestation of African culture were viewed by whites with fear and suspicion. The dancing, singing, chanting, and expressions of the numerous African religions that slaves brought with them to the new world were seen as threatening to slave owners. For this reason, slaves often had to practice these sustaining cultural elements in secret gatherings, sometimes called brush arbor meetings.

At the same time, African slaves were gradually being introduced to Christianity. The process of Christianization did not happen all at once, and numerous African religious elements, such as spirit possession, remain in African American Christianity to this day. As African slaves became familiar with stories from the Bible, particularly the Old Testament, they came to identify with many of them, particularly those involving Moses leading the Israelites out of slavery in Egypt. These Old Testament stories that resonated so deeply with the slaves' experiences served as the focal point for the lyrical content of spirituals.

Singing, drumming, and chanting are all deeply important aspects of many different African religions and cultures. These musical elements were retained in spirituals, but were often slowed down to a dirge-like pace. Frequently, drums were eliminated altogether and spirituals became completely a cappella or accompanied only by clapping.

Examples and Themes

Spirituals often contained subversive double meanings. On the surface they appear to be simply telling a story from the Old Testament or express a longing for a place in heaven. Just beneath this surface meaning, however, a cry for freedom and a desire to escape slavery can be heard.

The spiritual 'Steal Away to Jesus' is an excellent example of a spiritual that appears to be purely religious, but with clearly anti-slavery undertones. The lyrics are as follows:

Steal away, steal away, steal away to Jesus

Steal away, steal away home

I ain't got long to stay here

My Lord, He calls me

He calls me by the thunder

The trumpet sounds within-a my soul

I ain't got long to stay here

Green trees are bending

Po' sinner stand a-trembling

The trumpet sounds within-a my soul

I ain't got long to stay here

The subtext of these lyrics is fairly clear to contemporary ears, but they contained just enough religious cover and ambiguity to fly under the radar of white slave owners. Some of these spirituals, such as the one quoted above, are credited to a singer from Oklahoma named Wallace Willis, although he was probably not the sole composer.

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