The History of the African American Spiritual
By Patrisha Gill
It has been stated that the first folk songs produced in America are “Negro” or African American spirituals, and like other folk songs, the character and nature of these unique melodies reside in its history as well as its people. Described as songs of the common folk, these original folksongs are simple melodies sung and admired by the very people that created them.
An oral tradition that has been passed down from generation to generation, the African American spiritual expresses the physical, emotional, social, moral, and theological conditions of its community.
In Richard Newman’s illustrated book of spirituals, Go Down Moses, he writes, “the creation of the spirituals was organic, coming up from below, coming up from the people. It was living folk art – with no authors, no composers, no dates, no lyricists, nothing written down, no fixed or authoritative texts – belonging to the community.”
John Lovell, author of Black Song: The Forge and the Flame, explains that folk songs derive from a blend of elements that characterize a folk community, and in the case of the African American slave, those elements find their roots in Africa. But to appreciate the songs, we must first understand the community of people and their culture. The folk community that produced these original songs at its foundation was African, but the songs were significantly transformed by the American slave experience. Over a two-hundred-and-fifty-year time span, first, second and third generation slaves preserved their African roots through the syncopated rhythms, melodic themes, and the circle dances of their ancestors. But the African rhythms and melodies could not create the spirituals alone; it took the physical and emotional conditions of slavery to give these songs their depth and intensity.
In an article “The Negro Spiritual: Origins and Themes,” by David McD. Simms, he makes this statement, . . . the spirituals as we know them are more than unique rhythmic patterns – they move to a higher and more full development. They go a step beyond primitive rhythm to a higher melodic and harmonic creativeness. This metamorphosis occurred after the slave had begun to acclimate himself to his new environment, an environment which posed new and strange problems – problems of language, of behavior, of attitude, and, decisively, of religion.
Without fully appropriating the slave owner’s religion, African slaves found unique ways to hold firm to many of their traditions. By blending their rituals with Christian symbols and substituting Bible stories into their traditional songs, African American slaves created what eventually became the unique sound of the slave songs, a group of original melodies that ultimately introduced and produced the spiritual, the first genre of African American music.
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