The Development and Influence of Black Song and Spirituals

Until now, I have focused on the formal, Western arts, which, quite frankly, is that of “elite, white Europeans.” However, in the United States there developed a musical form that was influenced by those arts, but reshape and transformed by black people, both as slaves and as “a free people” in the United States. We often see its melismatic and rhythmic influence in various renditions of the national anthem of the United States over the last 20 to 30 years. But, its influence is far more pervasive and profound than that. In this post we will consider early black music through its unique expressions of spirituals, work songs, shouts and otherwise indigenous music arising in black culture in the United States. In a subsequent post I will address the rise of jazz and its stylistic expression in religious music.

Black slaves, captured throughout Africa and traded with the the Colonies in the New World would have brought with them their own individual cultural heritage from Africa. Because they were from different tribes, the culture that arose from such an amalgamation of cultural influence was unique. The melodies and rhythms of their spirituals, songs, chants, shouts and dances would have been influenced by both white culture and their individual African inheritances to be expressed in forms of their own unique music. As their cultural environment on the plantations changed, so, too, did their culture. Music, being a “universal language” and requiring no other materials other than a voice or a stick to pound out a rhythm on any sonorous object that might be found, even one’s hands, was most available of any of the arts to the black slaves. Moreover, not only did they live in their own communal setting, but they worked together throughout the day. Likely, as individuals find humming natural, joyful or consoling, moaning or delighting, this time together both in their severe work and in their limited areas and times of respite, it would be natural not only that individuals might find comfort from their own struggles and pain, but that others, who either shared those feelings, or were sympathetic to them, might join them in that expression. It was spontaneous both individually and communally.

See for the following description of early black music and its development:

Frederick Douglass, a former slave wrote, “I did not, when a slave, fully understand the deep meaning of those rude and apparently incoherent songs. I was, myself, within the circle, so that I could then neither hear nor see as those without might see and hear. They breathed the prayer and complaint of souls overflowing with the bitterest anguish. They depressed my spirits and filled my heart with ineffable sadness…The remark in the olden time was not unfrequently made, that slaves were the most contented and happy laborers in the world, and their dancing and singing were referred to in proof of this alleged fact; but it was a great mistake to suppose them happy because they sometimes made those joyful noises. The songs of the slaves represented their sorrows, rather than their joys. Like tears, they were a relief to aching hearts.”

Songs like “Steal Away (to Jesus)”, or “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot” raised unexpectedly in a dusty field, or sung softly in the dark of night, signaled that the coast was clear and the time to escape had come. The River Jordan became the Ohio River, or the Mississippi, or another body of water that had to be crossed on the journey to freedom. “Wade in the Water” contained explicit instructions to fugitive slaves on how to avoid capture and the route to take to successfully make their way to freedom. Leaving dry land and taking to the water was a common strategy to throw pursuing bloodhounds off one’s trail. “The Gospel Train”, and “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot” all contained veiled references to the Underground Railroad, and “Follow the Drinking Gourd” contained a coded map to the Underground Railroad. The title itself was an Africanized reference to the Big Dipper, which pointed the way to the North Star and freedom.

The above – referenced site also has performances of black music from the beginnings of recording technology, 1926 to the 70s.

See for resources that one can click on to explore songs, history, singers, composers, and over 200 traditional spirituals, including books and recordings.

When black natives of Africa were first captured and introduced to America through the slave trade, they were captured from different tribes with different religious and social traditions. American society, being predominantly Christian, acculturated the slaves to that belief system, its practices and its culture. However, living apart from white society and under great oppression, both physically and emotionally pained, brutalized, separated, and isolated, it was natural that they would adapt their experience of their white “masters’” religion to their own experiences of isolation, manipulation, abuse and pain, as well as their joys, longings and hopes for the future.

Some slaves were permitted to attend the churches of their masters. My father served the First Hopkinton Seventh Day Baptist Church in Ashaway, Rhode Island for eighteen years from 1959. Our first year there marked the celebration of its 250th anniversary. Although American society generally considers the history of the slaves to be that of the South, nonetheless, early in that history of trading in human flesh, the North also took advantage of it. The sanctuary of our church had a horseshoe shaped balcony with two rows of straight back benches, to which, as I understood it, the slaves were confined. It would not have been unusual for slaves to accompany their masters, although strict segregation would have been observed. That segregation would survive 100 years from the time of the Proclamation Emancipation and the following constitutional amendment prohibiting all slavery in the United States.

It would only have been natural that an isolated and repressed community would share common aspirations, hopes, religious appellations and celebrations. There were several religious “awakenings” in American history when religious fervor swept the country or areas of the country. The Negro slaves likewise had their own awakening in the early part of the 19th century. It may have been in addition to their peripheral experience of dominant white culture’s religion, or it might have been their own spontaneous gatherings as influenced by that religion. Many, perhaps most, not being literate, and having little or no opportunity for education, would not have been able to read lyrics or music notation. As in their daily work and domestic life, such as it existed, their songs were spontaneous. Those songs that survived would have been passed on by oral tradition. Particularly in their own religious experience, shared with other slaves with similar experiences of slavery and aspirations, they often found solace and hope in the biblical stories of the Exodus of the Jews from slavery in Egypt. This theme recurs throughout history and is expressed in many different theological ways, just as it existed among the black slaves: thereafter it would reappear in Liberation Theology, which was prevalent in Third World countries throughout the latter part of the 20th century, and Minjung Theology of Korea during the Japanese occupation of that country. The slaves shared with the Jews their experiences and stories of profound pain and the energizing hope of liberation.

And so, drawing upon the tradition that had developed among the slaves of “work songs,” or “chain gang songs” they spontaneously sang the biblical passages that consoled and encourage them, developed and improvised upon them, and passed them on. beautifully and articulately describes the origins and development of that music:

Some “drivers” also allowed slaves to sing “quiet” songs, if they were not apparently against slaveholders. Such songs could be sung either by only one soloist or by several slaves. They were used for expressing personal feeling and for cheering one another. So, even at work, slaves could sing “secret messages”. This was the case of negro spirituals, which were sung at church, in meetings, at work and at home.

The meaning of these songs was most often covert. Therefore, only Christian slaves understood them, and even when ordinary words were used, they reflected personal relationship between the slave singer and God.

The codes of the first negro spirituals are often related with an escape to a free country. For example, a “home” is a safe place where everyone can live free. So, a “home” can mean Heaven, but it covertly means a sweet and free country, a haven for slaves.
The ways used by fugitives running to a free country were riding a “chariot” or a “train”.
The negro spirituals “The Gospel Train” and “Swing low, sweet chariot” which directly refer to the Underground Railroad, an informal organization who helped many slaves to flee.

The words of “The Gospel train” are “She is coming… Get onboard… There’s room for many more”. This is a direct call to go way, by riding a “train” which stops at “stations”.
Then, “Swing low, sweet chariot” refers to Ripley, a “station” of the Underground Railroad, where fugitive slaves were welcome. This town is atop a hill, by Ohio River, which is not easy to cross. So, to reach this place, fugitives had to wait for help coming from the hill. The words of this spirituals say,“I looked over Jordan and what did I see/ Coming for to carry me home/ A band of angels coming after me.”
Here is an example of a negro spiritual and its covert meaning:


This is a well-known negro spiritual, which has an interesting meaning.
The “balm in Gilead” is quoted in the Old Testament, but the lyrics of this spiritual refer to the New Testament (Jesus, Holy Spirit, Peter, and Paul). This difference is interesting to comment. In the Old Testament, the balm of Gilead cannot heal sinners. In the New Testament, Jesus heals everyone who comes to Him.
So, in the book of Jeremiah, several verses speak about Gilead. In chap
ter 22, v. 6 and 13: The Lord says (about the palace of the king of Judea) “Though you are like Gilead to me, like the summit of Lebanon, I will surely make you like a desert, like towns inhabited… Woe to him who builds his palace by unrighteousness, making his countrymen work for nothing, not paying them for their labour”.

In the same book of Jeremiah, chapter 46, v. 2 and 11, “This is the message (of the Lord) against the army of Pharaoh Neco … Go up to Gilead and get balm, O Virgin Daughter of Egypt, but you multiply remedies in vain; here is no healing for you”.
In the New Testament, the four Gospels say that Jesus healed many people whatever their conditions: he can heal the poor. A Christian who feels the Spirit must share its faith and “preach”, like Peter and Paul.

Some question whether these spirituals had any significance beyond relieving the misery of the slaves and providing solace and hope. I don’t know of the authenticity of such, but I do know that the spirituals were a musical response to the great oppression and misery of the Negro slaves. Marcus Borg, in Living the Questions, quotes an Indian storyteller who began his stories with, “Now, I don’t know if it actually happen this way, but I know it is true.” I know that these stories told in the spirituals are true, and I have every reason to believe that they are authentic history, as well.

Upon emancipation, the Negro experience in church became more expressive and responsive to their life experiences which, at that time, would have included the oppression of segregation, of tenant farming, social exclusion, grossly limited educational and occupational opportunities, and cultural isolation. On the other hand, the cultural isolation also, while not justifying it, nonetheless, with freedom from slavery, permitted blacks to develop their own cultural identity, most frequently in their churches. Also, with release from the bond of slavery, they are also permitted to attend funerals of their own, and both to mourn the loss and to celebrate the memory and life of their loved ones. Out of that experience grew the roots of jazz. As I understand it, following the church funeral, a band would accompany the coffin to the cemetery, wailing their loss; however, upon the return from the cemetery the same band played joyously to celebrate that life and its meaning to those who survived.

The immediately prior website has extensive information and auditory examples on the growth of black music arising out of slavery and responding to new conditions, both oppressive and liberating. I will hereafter post some sites giving auditory, and to the extent possible, visual, examples of black music. My feeble verbal descriptions will merely foreshadow what is much more articulate and knowledgeably presented in the preceding two sites. I may attempt to punctuate that, but I cannot improve upon the substantive and detailed descriptions found there..

Before exploring those examples, I will acknowledge some tangential connection that I have with American black people and their music. First, I was a music major in college. I did not grow up in a jazz culture, but my studies surveyed that culture, and over the years I have developed great appreciation for jazz, the people who produce and perform it, their struggles, and their contributions to society. Second, I have a preverbal memory of the devotion of many black women who became mothers to me in my six months at Charity Hospital, New Orleans Louisiana on a ward of eighteen infant polio patients, during the polio epidemic of 1949. When I was discovering some of the emotional scars from that experience, I asked my mother of her and Dad’s experiences of that time. She noted the special significance that black women had for me during my hospitalization. They were especially courageous in that polio had no vaccine to protect those who came in contact with its victims. To deal with 18 crying babies on a hospital ward and, in doing so, risking your own health and even that of your family to a dreaded disease that paralyzed and even killed its victims, required exceptional courage, devotion, loving, praying, and hoping for the sake of a patient that she would not likely know or maintain contact in the future. Here is my mother’s reply:

Robert, I will tell you more about our feelings when you went to the hospital. You were never as visibly sick as Annita had been but you walked to me with arms up and I sat down and rocked you a while then stood you down on the floor only to have you limp in both legs. I had a Dr. appt. with my OB Dr. that day so took you along and she sent me to the ER where they sent me to the “Charity” Hospital ER. Charity had the only Polio Hosp. in the entire state. It was just that no charges and absolutely NO information once you were in. Only Nursing Aids visible no nurses even and they would not tell you a Doctor’s name. Guess you had many doctors and medical students, maybe mostly med students hence no charges at all. It was a heavy price on child and also parent. Polio was such a mystery and caused such panic that people did not want to even speak the name to ask how you were doing or to say they were sorry. Dad and I were both in camp (Southwestern Association Camp) in New Orleans. We could not visit you for two weeks then only Wednes. eve. for 2 hours and Sunday afternoon for two hours. We could call any time we were concerned. I called once and did not believe one thing they told me I was sure they were pat answers they told each parent. I ended up crying in Dad’s arms and we both knew we could not go on this way and it was not helping you any so we must honestly trust God to be where you were and to put it on the heart of someone there to love you and fill your immediate needs. During this time we learned to pray without ceasing and commune with God all our waking moments. Annita insisted on putting your plate on the table every single meal all those 6 months and we prayed for you every meal. I have wondered if you have felt a special closeness to colored people that you might not understand for most of the Aids we ever saw were black and really they were our best source of information all those months as to how you were doing really. I am convinced that God did use many loving mothers during those months to love and comfort you when we were not there. You survived the infectious diarrhea that took many of your room mates. There at one time were 18 of you babies under one year in the same room in baby beds. We survived as our trust and confidence in God’s presence and involvement in not only our lives but your life deepened and our love, compassion and concern about others in trauma situations grew also. These experiences have impacted all our ministry through the years since and continue to do so. Yes, this was a humbling helpless experience but the worst for us was leaving you there and knowing you did not understand why and might forget us and think we had abandoned you.

I was about 50 years of age when I asked for and received this letter. It was yet another 10 years before I was able to confront and begin to resolve the pain of that experience. During that time, I became more aware of my natural attraction and feeling of familial relationship with black people. Having been able to experience within the last six months the emotional trauma of that preverbal but powerful event by reading aloud my mother’s description of that time in her email, later more fully described in her Memories. Only then was I aware of the power of that preverbal memory and how it subconsciously has powerfully influenced, and even, at points, controlled, my life.

For an excellent survey and a rich representation of recordings from early discographic history from the early and mid-Twentieth Century, see

“Amazing Grace”, performed by Elder Walter Avenues and the Little River Primitive Baptist Church c.1960
“Been In The Storm So Long”, performed by the Fisk Jubilee Singers
“Couldn’t Hear Nobody Pray”, performed by the Tuskegee Institute Choir
“Deep Down in My Heart”, performed by W. M. Givens in Darien, Georgia
March 19, 1926
“Didn’t My Lord Deliver Daniel?”, performed by the Howard Roberts Chorale/Alvin Ailey 1978
“Go Down, Moses”, performed by Paul Robeson
“Lay Down Body”, performed by Mrs. Bertha Smith (lead) and The Moving Star Hall Singers of John’s Island, South Caronlina 1960
“Little David, Play Your Harp”, performed by Brother Claude Ely and the Cumberland Four 1953
“My Good Lord Done Been Here”, performed by Aunt Florida Hampton
May 29, 1939
“Pharaoh’s Army Got Drowned”, performed by unknown artist
“Roll the Old Chariot Along”, performed by unknown artist
“Soon I Will Be Done”, performed by Mahalia Jackson as “Trouble of the World” 1963
“Steal Away to Jesus”, performed by Bernice Johnson Reagon
“Swing Low, Sweet Chariot”, performed by Isadore Oglesby
“Take My Hand, Precious Lord”, performed by Clara Ward

Alan Lomax Series on recording songs reflective of the history of black songs
Boyd Rivers & Ruth May Rivers: Fire In My Bones (1978)

At this site you will find other links that, at the time of my writing, were not available for playing.
“We Shall Overcome” – Black History – Martin Luther King Jr – Gospel Music

AfroAmerican Prison song

Lightning- Long John (Old song by a chain gang) audio

Poor Boy – Lomax Prison Recording

Go Down Old Hannah.Texas Prison Camp

Contemporary Black Religious Music
FCBC 2010 Black History Month 04 – Peace Be Still


“We Shall Overcome” Praise Dance

Soul R&B Black Gospel Music: Hosanna

“Wade in the Water”
From a 2011 annual praise dance concert and worship experience. Choreographed by Artistic Director, Errin Berry and Guest Choreographer, Amansu Eason


“Ain’t got no shoes” Praise Dance

For more contemporary black religious music, see:
Harlem Gospel Singers – Go Down Moses:

“When I Rose This Morning” – Mississippi Mass Choir

For other religious music performed by the Mississippi mass choir, see

See, also,


Links to my site:


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