A Note About Negro Spirituals
“The Negro Spirituals are … the most beautiful expression of human experience born this side of the seas.”
(Jefferson Cleveland & William McClain, A Historical Account of the Negro Spiritual in the hymnal SONGS OF ZION. Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1981)
There is a body of American sacred songs commonly called Negro spirituals. These songs express – both in their words and in the way they are performed musically – the deep religious feelings of the African-American people. They are an important part of the American cultural heritage, and are now recognized globally as anthems to liberty that can feed the deepest aspirations of the human soul.
The great majority of Negro spirituals are very old. In a lot of cases the tunes and rhythms are so ancient we can trace them back to Africa, the homeland of Black Americans who were brought to the United States long ago in slavery. The English words of the earliest known Negro spirituals are taken from passages of the Holy Bible, using scriptural themes to tell about the grief and trials of slaves, and to voice their hope for deliverance or rest. Later on, elements of the natural world as well as events from the communal and personal religious experiences of African-Americans provided more material for the texts of songs.
The spirituals are a library of sorts. By studying them, it is possible to gain a wealth of information and insight into the historical, social, and religious development of African slaves and their descendants who have journeyed within the United States over the decades and centuries. Negro spirituals have had their home in cotton fields, work camps, churches, meeting rooms, and recital halls. They contributed to the birth of various types of popular music such as gospel, jazz and blues, to the financial support of Black colleges and other institutions, to the folklore of social struggles including the civil rights movement, and to the uplift of outstanding African-American musicians and singers worldwide. The opera community is historically linked to the promotion of such artists.
Clearly, what gives Negro spiritual songs their power is the way in which they invite the human voice to add contour, rhythm, texture, melody, tempo, variation, and emotional depth to words. The African-American experience resonates within and all through them. They have been preserved over time, and developed/redeveloped both in a distinctive choral form and in a characteristic style arranged for performance by the non-amplified solo voice with piano accompaniment. In the United States we cannot seem to get enough of Negro spirituals; contemporary composers, arrangers and vocalists continue to explore and enliven this unique genre. The “Negro Spiritual” Scholarship Foundation is dedicated to carrying on this tradition by preserving and developing sacred music in the same richly idiomatic vein as part of a heritage which is rooted in the American South.