As a culture, African Americans have a long tradition of passing down songs, stories, and sayings from one generation to the next. Some of these traditions are passed down through spoken word while others are passed through song. With that being said, there’s nothing like the power and presence of a great spiritual. In fact, some would say that these hymns are much more than just verses thrown together; they’re actually prayers in verse form. These songs reflect the resilience and faith of those who sing them. Although you might not know it by listening to most Christian radio stations, there is an abundance of African American spirituals out there just waiting to be heard.
Taken from their native lands and brought to the United States, the Africans carried with them elements of traditional music from various regions. As a result, stories that detailed the hardships of slavery were combined with those aspects to produce Black music in America, which would later serve as the foundation for all types of Black music. Southern gospel, the blues, and early jazz, for instance, would be invented in the future as a result of hip hop being brought full circle.
African-American spirituals would go on to become one of the most significant folk song genres in America, entirely as a result of decades of Black musical innovation and oral tradition. African ethnicities and cultures’ distinctive characteristics, such as call-and-response and improvisation, turned into one of the only methods slaves could communicate their history and existence, as reading and writing were not normally taught to them and were frequently prohibited by law.
The banjo, a West African instrument based on a similar one and known in the U.S. prior to the banjo as the banjaw, banjow, or banshaw, was one of those items. Additionally required for the performance of another part of African music were percussion affinities, which were made up of several drums.
After learning that Africans held as slaves used these drums to communicate, slaveowners outlawed them. Spirituals, including Christian values that were forced upon them; they were unavoidably expressing a wish for protection against all of the horrifying sins of chattel slavery as well as freedom from slavery. During the period, Black music was particularly innovative in terms of employing words in code — so that those seeking to flee to the North could use them as a means of communication.
Although there has been debate, it is still debatable if spirituals like “Wade in the Water” and “Follow the Drinking Gourd” contained directions on how to run the Underground Railroad. Slavery, of course, is a complex subject to research.
Harriet Tubman, better known as Moses, used a spiritual song called “Go Down, Moses” as a secret code for slaves escaping to Maryland, according to her. Tubman also used specific tunes to alert runaways she was guiding to freedom. The messages frequently advised people to wait it out in hiding or to come out of hiding.
When considering early spirituals, it’s crucial to keep in mind that many were merely manifestations of the desire for spiritual freedom. Gospel music was often cultivated on plantations by black people.
The Black church created gospel music as a distinctive element of Black worship services and spiritual ceremonies in the 1800s as a result of the early Negro spirituals. White British and American missionaries created gospel as a result of Christianizing slaves, but the Black church differentiated gospel music from anthems, Christian hymns, and other spiritual music.
Since the 1920s, the genre has developed and is today a widely recognised musical style. Race recordings were introduced in the 1920s in America, according to History. Between 1920 and 1940, American businesses produced music especially for Black listeners, which was a craze. The artists, however, pioneered new sounds in blues, jazz and gospel, which were largely ignored and underpaid by American producers.
In the 1930s, gospel music, also known commercially as the holy blues, produced revolutionary superstars like Sister Rosetta Tharpe, whose hit single “This Train” sold a million copies. The golden age of gospel music between 1945 and 1965, which was dominated by soloists like Mahalia Jackson, was made possible by Tharpe’s success and her innovative integration of secular sounds in holy music. Jackson is broadly considered one of the most significant figures in the civil rights movement as well as one of the most influential singers in American music history.
Early jazz performances were also included on ragtime, gospel, and blues records in the early 1920s. However, an all-white quintet made the first jazz record. “Livery Stable Blues” by the Original Dixieland Jass Band was one of the first hit records in the United States, selling over one million copies in 1917. The title track, which featured a plagiarized riff from African-American musicians living in New Orleans, is said to have been a sticking point for historians.
A lot of other popular music, as well as jazz in particular, would later follow this example and erase black artists in order to favour white performers and the music industry. Black musicians who created country, bluegrass, and rock and roll have been historically erased from American music history, and this legacy is still present in hip hop’s most popular genre. The most well-known hip-hop artist is none other than Eminem, the best-selling musician of all time.
African Americans’ full circle music, which incorporated improvisation, call and response, polyrhythmic rhythms, and percussive elements that accompanied Black storytelling, hip hop, which frequently featured dance beats, was born hundreds of years after the invention of spirituals. Jubilee spirituals, in which call and respond to the beat, are more joyful and rhythmic than hip hop music. Hip hop music and slave songs reflect trauma, God, and Black history in telling the tales of voiceless populations.
These powerful African American Spirituals are a reminder of just how resilient the human spirit can be. If anything, these songs show us just how much faith, hope, and love can endure throughout the test of time. Many of these songs were written during times of great distress and despair. Yet, through song and prayer, poets, singers, and composers were able to channel their emotions and experiences into creativity and art. These songs are a testimony to the power of the human spirit.