Spirituals and Slavery

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Spirituals and Slavery
Almost all the first Africans who arrived in the New World were slaves. They came from several regions of the African West Coast.

Their ways of living were described by slaves themselves, in some narratives. They had to work either in plantations or in town.

Slavery was an important issue facing Churches, as slaves were allowed to meet for Christian services. Some Christian ministers, such as J. D. Long, wrote against slavery.

Rural slaves used to stay after the regular worship services, in churches or in plantation “praise houses”, for singing and dancing. But, slaveholders did not allow dancing and playing drums, as usual in Africa. They also had meetings at secret places (“camp meetings”, “bush meetings”), because they needed to meet one another and share their joys, pains and hopes. In rural meetings, thousands slaves were gathered and listened to itinerant preachers, and sang spirituals, for hours. In the late 1700s, they sang the precursors of spirituals, which were called “corn ditties”.

So, in rural areas, spirituals were sung, mainly outside of churches. In cities, about 1850, the Protestant City-Revival Movement created a new song genre, which was popular; for revival meetings organized by this movement, temporary tents were erected in stadiums, where the attendants could sing.

At church, hymns and psalms were sung during services. Some of them were transformed into songs of a typical African American form: they are "Dr Watts”.

The lyrics of negro spirituals were 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 town 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 for helping slaves to run away.

During slavery and afterwards, workers were allowed to sing songs during their working time. This was the case when they had to coordinate their efforts for hauling a fallen tree or any heavy load. For example, prisoners used to sing "chain gang" songs, when they worked on the road or some construction. 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 or by several slaves. They were used for expressing personal feeling, and for cheering one another.


The Underground Railroad (UGRR) helped slaves to run to free a country. A fugitive could use several ways. First, they had to walk at night, using hand lights and moonlight. When needed, they walked (“waded”) in water, so that dogs could not smell their tracks. Second, they jumped into chariot, where they could hide and ride away. These chariots stopped at some “stations”, but this word could mean any place where slaves had to go for being taken in charge.

So, negro spirituals like “Wade in the Water”, “The Gospel Train” and “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot” directly refer to the UGRR.

Despite the inhumanity of slavery, a vibrant slave culture developed in the South, with a focus on music. The spirituals, or sacred songs, sung by slaves reflected both the strong influence of African musical forms such as “Call and Response” and the value of religious faith to people living in misery. Singing these songs helped forge a stronger community among slaves while motivating and inspiring them to endure their harsh lives. It also allowed them to express social and political protest, and even represented a means of coded communication, guiding slaves to freedom along the Underground Railroad.

Some spirituals spoke of heroes from the Hebrew bible, like Moses (“Go Down, Moses”) and Joshua (“Joshua Fit [fought] the Battle of Jericho”), who led the people of Israel out of slavery in Egypt to the Promised Land. Others protested the poverty endured by slaves and forecast a better world to come, one where “I got shoes, you got shoes/ All God’s children got shoes./ When I get to Heav’n gonna put on my shoes, / Gonna walk all over God’s Heav’n.”

A few spirituals offered coded messages about the Underground Railroad, the route taken by escaped slaves to the North. References to the “Land of Canaan,” for example, could refer to Canada. The African-American leader Frederick Douglas later revealed the significance of these songs: “A keen observer might have detected in our repeated singing of ‘O Canaan, sweet Canaan/ I am bound for the land of Canaan something more than a hope of reaching heaven. We meant to reach the North, and the North was our Canaan.”

The most famous spiritual was “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot.” It spoke about deliverance from Suffering, and also served as a code announcing the approach of conductors, or organizers, on the Underground Railroad:

Swing Low, sweet chariot,

Coming for to carry me home.

Swing low, sweet chariot,

Coming for to carry me home.
I looked over Jordan, and what did I see,

Coming for to carry me home?

A band of angels coming after me,

Coming for to carry me home.
If you get there before I do,

Coming for to carry me home,

Tell all my friends I’m coming too,

Coming for to carry me home.
Spirituals like “Swing Low” were an expression – in song – of the determination of African-Americans to be freed from bondage and to maintain their self respect despite the institution of slavery.
Go the website www.negrospirituals.com and select a song to examine by clicking on the tab entitled “songs”.

Print the lyrics of the song chosen and in a one page reflection, answer the following:

  1. What function did spirituals serve among the slave population?

  2. Provide examples to illustrate each function.

  3. Closely examine the text of your selected song and explain in what ways might it be about escaping slavery? In what ways could it be an expression of religious faith and hope? How does the song directly/indirectly relate to the singers living conditions?



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