Music and Slavery

What are Negro Spirituals?

Negro Spirituals are religious songs that black Americans sang from the earliest days of their enslavement in America; they have been called “the foremost prominent style of Southern slave music.” The exact development of the spiritual is difficult to trace, since the music was not recorded but passed on orally. However, the spiritual is said to have emerged in the late 1770s and became prominent during the antebellum period and the Civil War, between 1830 and the 1860s. Spirituals were taught by rote and not notated music. The spirituals have been called “strongly African” as well as “strongly American,” as slaves brought with them from Africa a rich musical heritage. Slaves sang their songs while at work on plantations, when at play, at rest, and during their ritual worship services. They were powerful shields against the inhumanity of slavery and provided a healthy escape from sorrow and violence. Slave songs often spoke of God, heaven, and freedom; such as, chariots coming to carry them out of slavery. Some spirituals refer to the Jordan River, which slaves considered the “river of escape.” They referenced the river as a route to freedom, or a return route to Africa. Thus, spirituals also held hidden messages to facilitate escape from slavery.


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