“Faith is taking the first step even when you don’t see the whole staircase.” Martin Luther King, Jr.
June marks the celebration of African American Music in the United States. Through the American calendar year, we have a variety of observations to acknowledge the historical, social, and cultural impact of the minority groups that form our melting pot. Of course, it is impossible to squeeze in such influence in mere months and weeks. It is impossible to condense the enormity and richness that is African-American history, let alone our music. From the different styles that continue to shape modern music from trap to even country; however, we can still highlight the history, impact, and culture of African-American music that is truly unique in its own right.
This post will highlight what may be considered the cornerstone of all African American music, spirituals. Spirituals may arguably stand as a focal point, or key element of African-American culture and life—a building block if you will. It goes without saying that music is integral to the lives of Black Americans. Even today, our unique music stylings continue to influence global music trends. It is distinct with undefinable characteristics and is incomparable to any other music style. This remains as true now as back in the eighteenth century, as slaves brought over from Africa gave tunes to their labor.
Spirituals are more than deep sung vocals with colorful runs that we hear in every enslavement period film or old church record, dusted off each February to sing in remembrance. They are a type of religious folk song associated with the slavery period in America’s history, particularly the time of abolishment. It grew to become the largest and most significant form of American folk song.
The style of spirituals reflected the African heritage of slaves; however, the term comes from the King James Bible translation of Ephesians 5:19. Spirituals were spontaneous and unwritten. They exhibited roots in informal gatherings, such as “praise houses” and outdoor meetings with characteristic dancing and hand-clapping. Colonizers, alarmed by the form of worship, banned such gatherings believing it to be wild and idolatrous. Of course, this did not bring an end to spirituals.
Spirituals expressed a range of human emotions—sorrow, hope, and faith. As slaves learned about Christianity, some spirituals identified the oppression of slavery with the struggle of Christ. This allows for the genre to have a variety of types—codified protest songs, sorrow songs, freedom songs, and jubilee. Well-known spirituals include the like of “Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child,” “Nobody Knows the Trouble I’ve Seen,” “Fare Ye Well,” and “Steal Away to Jesus.” Spirituals gained popularity after the publication of a collection in the 1860s. This led to spirituals being professionally performed. Groups like the Hampton Singers and Jubilee singers sang spirituals. Composers, like Henry T. Burleigh, transcribed the difficult vocals of spiritual into musical arrangements. Classical singers of the twentieth century added spirituals to their repertoire.
Spirituals are also not to be confused with gospel or hymnals. While these three are grounded in black culture, they are distinct in their styles and purpose. Hymnals and gospel music are strictly founded for the Christian church. Hymnals are a collection of songs, prayers, spirituals, choruses, litanies, psalm settings, and other worship resources. Gospel music is a specific genre of Christian music with recognizable musical features. Still, gospel music does preserve the lyrics of some spirituals, specifically in musical arrangements.