The Contribution and Influence of Black Song and Dance

Until now, I have focused on the formal Western arts, which, quite frankly, is that of “elite, white Europeans.” However, in the United States blacks have contributed musical forms that were influenced by those arts, but which they reshaped and transformed through their experiences and expressive responses 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 their contributions of jazz and its stylistic expression in religious music.

Black slaves, captured from throughout Africa and sold in the Colonies in the New World, would have brought with them their own individual cultural heritages from Africa, being captured from different tribes, the traditions of which would have been mixed with those of other tribes. 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. The melodies and rhythms of their spirituals and gospel songs arising from the cultural milieu of their “owners,” their inheritances through practice and oral tradition, and their shared experiences of slavery, all contribed to their own unique culture and music. As their cultural environment on the plantations changed, as did their experiences of freedom as well as segregation, so, too, did their culture, music, dance, and graphic arts.

Music, being a “universal language” and requiring no 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 settings, but they worked together with other slaves throughout the day. Likely, as individuals find humming natural, joyful or consoling, moaning or delighting, this time together both in their labors 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, through music, but that others, who either shared in those feelings or were sympathetic to them, might join them. Music 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.”

In song, lyrics about the Exodus were a metaphor for freedom from slavery.
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 available recordings of performances of black music from 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.

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 likely have been observed.

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 their songs were spontaneous. Those that survived would have been passed on by oral tradition. Particularly in their own religious experience, shared with other slaves with similar experiences 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.

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 encouraged them, developed and improvised upon those, and passed them on. beautifully and articulately describes the origins and development of that music:

But 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 chapter 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 some limited solace and hope. I don’t know of the authenticity of such claims, but I do know that the spirituals were a musical response to the great oppression and misery of the Negro slaves.

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 could attend funerals of their own, 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. I may attempt to punctuate thatontent, but I cannot improve upon the substantive and detailed descriptions found there.

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

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

I will present a general survey below, and later we will explore in greater depth black music and dance. Each is remarkable in its own way, including humor about a very difficult history.

At this site you will find other links:
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” – Black History – Martin Luther King Jr – Gospel Music

“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 produced by the Alvin Ailey Dance Troupe. Choreographed by Artistic Director, Errin Berry and Guest Choreographer, Amansu Eason


“Ain’t got no shoes” Praise Dance

This is remarkable, not only for the music, but the concept, choreography, dance, commentary and its hope. From a theological standpoint, I also see in it depth of forgiveness and redemption. I do not see forgiveness as saying “that’s okay,” because slavery was not okay. But I see forgiveness as refusing to be bound by the hurts of the past, permitting one to live in the present with the hope for the future. I am very grateful for this performance and its message of hope for me.

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


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