Resources for Loss

Negro Spirituals (Songs to Combat Loss), contributed by Ellen Trusty (2023)

Negro spirituals are songs created by the Africans who were captured and brought to the United States to be sold into slavery. This stolen race was deprived of their languages, families, and cultures; yet their masters could not take away their music.

Over the years, African slaves adopted Christianity, the religion of their masters. They re-shaped it into a deeply personal way of dealing with the oppression of their enslavement. Their songs, which were to become known as spirituals, reflected the slaves’ need to express their new faith: Christianity.

The songs were also used to communicate with one another without the knowledge of their masters. This was particularly the case when a slave was planning to escape bondage to seek freedom via the Underground Railroad.

People told stories, from Genesis to Revelation, with God’s faithful as the main characters. Most slaves could not read. They were not allowed to learn because the masters were afraid that reading would empower them to seek freedom. Even though most slaves could not read the Bible, they would listen to Bible stories, memorize them, and translate them into songs.

These songs, or spirituals, were created extemporaneously and were passed orally from person to person. They were improvised along the way to suit the singer. It is estimated there are more than 6,000 spirituals, but the prohibition against slaves learning to read or write means that the actual number of songs is unknown.

Composers also set spirituals for chorus and organized choral groups on college campuses as well as professional touring choirs. Hall Johnson started the Hall Johnson Negro Choir in September 1925 because he wanted to “show how the American Negro slaves, in 250 years of constant practice, self-developed a musical genre under pressure that was unique to the world of music.”

Spirituals fall into three basic categories:
1. Call and response – A “leader” begins a line, which is then followed by a choral response; often sung to a fast, rhythmic tempo (“Ain’t That Good News,” “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot,” “Go Down, Moses”)
2. Slow and melodic – Songs with sustained, expressive phrasing, generally slower tempo (“Deep River,” “Balm in Gilead,” “Calvary”)
3. Fast and rhythmic – Songs that often tell a story in a faster, syncopated rhythm (“Witness,” “Ev’ry Time I Feel the Spirit,” “Elijah Rock,” “Joshua Fit the Battle of Jericho”)

I have chosen “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot,” sung by Paul Robeson

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. Oh, [Refrain]

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. Oh, [Refrain]

African American Spirituals 


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