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Negro Spirituals

Singers Before 1865

The very first spirituals were created by slaves, who were not professionals. In “shouts”, singers and dancers participated for pleasure; singers were either tired dancers or the most talented voices.

Slaves also attended religious services at church and in plantation houses. They used to sing hymns, psalms and spirituals. Preachers there often led the congregations for singing.

Some Praying and Singing Bands met after the formal worship services for praying, dancing holy dances and singing “corn-field ditties” (precursors of negro spirituals) The man who could sing loudest and longest led the Band. He had a handkerchief in hand with which he kept time and he tapped the floor with his feet like a bass drum.

Negro spirituals were also sung by individuals (example, “I feel like a motherless child”), in family or with friends, at home and in fields.

Specialized groups sang various types of music. So, since the 1850s, “quartets” (or “quartettes”) were Black men who sang religious music. They were soloists of at least three voices, and they were between four and seven in number.

Many musicians and singers had also the opportunity to perform in barbershops. Their songs were rather secular even if some pieces were based on spirituals.

Lyrics Before 1865

In the early nineteenth century, African Americans were involved in the “Second Awakening”. They met in camp meetings and sang without any hymnbook. Spontaneous songs were composed on the spot. They were called “spiritual songs” and the term “sperichil” (spiritual) appeared for the first time in the book “Slave Songs of The United States” (by Allen, Ware, Garrison, 1867).

As negro spirituals are Christian songs, most of them concern what the Bible says and how to live with the Spirit of God. For example, the “dark days of bondage” were enlightened by the hope and faith that God will not leave slaves alone.

By the way, African Americans used to sing outside of churches. During slavery and afterwards, slaves and workers who were working at fields or elsewhere outdoors, were allowed to sing “work songs”. This was the case, when they had to coordinate their efforts for hauling a fallen tree or any heavy load. Even prisoners used to sing “chain gang” songs when they worked on the road or on some construction project.

But some “drivers” also allowed slaves to sing “quiet” songs, if they were not apparently against slaveholders. Such songs could be sung either by only one soloist or by several slaves. They were used for expressing personal feeling and for cheering one another. So, even at work, slaves could sing “secret messages”. This was the case of negro spirituals, which were sung at church, in meetings, at work and at home.

The meaning of these songs was most often covert. Therefore, only Christian slaves understood them, and even when ordinary words were used, they reflected personal relationship between the slave singer and God.

The codes of the first negro spirituals are often related with an escape to a free country. For example, a “home” is a safe place where everyone can live free. So, a “home” can mean Heaven, but it covertly means a sweet and free country, a haven for slaves.

The ways used by fugitives running to a free country were riding a “chariot” or a “train”.

The negro spirituals “The Gospel Train” and “Swing low, sweet chariot” which directly refer to the Underground Railroad, an informal organization who helped many slaves to flee.

The words of  “The Gospel train” are “She is coming… Get onboard… There’s room for many more”.  This is a direct call to go way, by riding a “train” which stops at “stations”.

Then, “Swing low, sweet chariot” refers to Ripley, a “station” of the Underground Railroad, where fugitive slaves were welcome. This town is atop a hill, by Ohio River, which is not easy to cross. So, to reach this place, fugitives had to wait for help coming from the hill. The words of this spirituals say,“I looked over Jordan and what did I see/ Coming for to carry me home/ A band of angels coming after me”

Here is an example of a negro spiritual and its covert meaning:


This is a well-known negro spiritual, which has an interesting meaning.

The “balm in Gilead” is quoted in the Old Testament, but the lyrics of this spiritual refer to the New Testament (Jesus, Holy Spirit, Peter, and Paul). This difference is interesting to comment. In the Old Testament, the balm of Gilead cannot heal sinners. In the New Testament, Jesus heals everyone who comes to Him.

So, in the book of Jeremiah, several verses speak about Gilead. In chapter 22, v. 6 and 13: The Lord says (about the palace of the king of Judea) “Though you are like Gilead to me, like the summit of Lebanon, I will surely make you like a desert, like towns inhabited… Woe to him who builds his palace by unrighteousness, making his countrymen work for nothing, not paying them for their labour”.

In the same book of Jeremiah, chapter 46, v. 2 and 11, “This is the message (of the Lord) against the army of Pharaoh Neco … Go up to Gilead and get balm, O Virgin Daughter of Egypt, but you multiply remedies in vain; here is no healing for you”.

In the New Testament, the four Gospels say that Jesus healed many people whatever their conditions: he can heal the poor. A Christian who feels the Spirit must share its faith and “preach”, like Peter and Paul.


Dr Isaac WATTS was an English minister who published several books: « Hymns and Spiritual Songs », in 1707, “The Psalms of David” in 1717. The various Protestant denominations adopted his hymns, which were included in several hymnals, at that time.

Missionaries reported on the “ecstatic delight” slaves took in singing the psalms and hymns of Dr Watts.

In his book “The Religious Instruction of the Negroes in the United States” (1842), the White minister Charles Colock Jones recommended highly some hymns of Dr Watts (“When I Can read My Title Clear”, etc.). He wrote: “One great advantage in teaching them (slaves) good psalms and hymns, is that they are thereby induced to lay aside the extravagant and nonsensical chants, and catches and hallelujah songs of their own composing”.

However, in the early 1800s, Black ministers took seriously the admonition of Dr Isaac Watts: “Ministers are to cultivate gifts of preaching and prayer through study and diligence; they ought also to cultivate the capacity of composing spiritual songs and exercise it along with the other parts of the worship, preaching and prayer”. So, homiletic spirituals were created by preachers and taught to the congregation by them or by deacons.

During the post-Civil War period and later, some congregation conducted services without hymnbooks.  A deacon (or precentor) set the pitch and reminded the words in half-singing half-chanting stentorian tones. The people called their songs “long-meter hymns (because the tempo was very low) or “Dr Watts”, even if they have not been written by this gentleman.

The particular feature of this kind of singing was its surging, melismatic melody, punctuated after each praise by the leader’s intoning of the next line of the hymn. The male voices doubled the female voices an octave below and with the thirds and the fifths occurring when individuals left the melody to sing in a more comfortable range. The quality of the singing was distinctive for its hard, full-throated and/or nasal tones with frequent exploitation of falsetto, growling, and moaning.

The beats of  Dr Watt’s songs were slow, while there are other types of spirituals. These beats are usually classed in three groups:
- the “call and response chant”,
- the slow, sustained, long-phrase melody,
- and the syncopated, segmented melody,
- “Call and response”

For a “call and response chant”, the preacher (leader) sings one verse and the congregation (chorus) answers him with another verse.

An example of such songs is “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot”:


LeadSwing low, sweet chariot
ChorusComing for to carry me home
LeadSwing low, sweet chariot
ChorusComing for to carry me home
LeadIf you get there before I do
ChorusComing for to carry me home
LeadTell all my friends, I’m coming too
ChorusComing for to carry me home

YouTube Video

Etta James Swing Low Sweet Chariot

YouTube Video