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Music of Black Americans

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17, 2017

The Necessity for an Understanding of
Slave Songs and Spirituals in Understanding African American Musical Culture as
a Whole

The legacy of slave songs from the lives
of African Americans throughout their enslavement remains today, in which
African tradition was heavily integrated into a form of communication among the
slaves through signified meaning, and an integration of religion allowed for
the evolution of spirituals.
Slave songs and spirituals represented a way to voice the struggle for freedom
and hope while maintaining the African culture that many white Americans were
trying to dissipate.
Although sometimes overlooked or briefly considered, slave songs and spirituals
are trivial aspects of African American culture as a whole, especially when contemplating
the evolution of African American art and music. A deep understanding of slave songs and
their relationship with spirituals is necessary to even slightly grasp the
fundamental roots of African American history, tradition, music, and culture. The
evolution of African American music is evident through the examination of the
meaning and origins of the music found within spirituals and slave songs.

For a huge segment of America’s history,
slaves were one of the biggest uniform groups in the multiculturalism America.
They framed slave tunes and spirituals in the late nineteenth century as
impressions of their battles and beliefs and additionally to set up their own
particular dialect or form of communication. Slaves tunes spoke to the sounds
of African and African American oppression, and powered the survival and social
battle of the individuals who were able to keep withdrawn memories of the culture
of the country in which they were stripped from.

Today, many are uneducated on the origin
of African American culture through enslavement within the United States, and
their conventional perspectives of slavery can be tested by analyzing the many
types of resistance to dehumanization that developed in slave society. These
forms of resistance fueled by the slaves in the nineteenth century are heavily
and primarily the records of slave songs and spirituals. Many concentrate on
the remorselessness and dehumanization of slavery, which, obviously, is
critical, however, still neglect to perceive or recognize the ways in which
slaves attempted to force their owners to acknowledge their humanity through
religion, culture, and music. While slave songs started as a route for slaves
to communicate without being understood by plantation owners, spirituals
started as a development of this type of communication with an integration of
religion. Both forms of music represented their struggle to maintain hope,
their self-support, and their aspirations for freedom. Frederick Douglass, a
former slave, once stated that “The remark in the olden time was not
unfrequently made, that slaves were the most contented and happy laborers in
the world, and their dancing and singing were referred to in proof of this
alleged fact; but it was a great mistake to suppose them happy because they
sometimes made those joyful noises. The songs of the slaves represented their sorrows,
rather than their joys. Like tears, they were a relief to aching hearts”
(Hurston 42).

The development of slave songs and
therefore spirituals was derived directly from the regulations that the
plantation owners placed on their slaves. Drums, song, and dance triggered fear
and suspicion in slave owners, pushing them to only allow music that seemed to
help the efficiency of the field work, or promoted the Christian religion. Work
songs were a significant component of slave songs, and were utilized as either self-motivation
of the slaves or as specific instructions and communication forms between them.
Slave songs began to utilize biblical references as ways to express certain
messages. Stories of Moses were often referred to as the freedom fighters,
while references to heaven were actually allusions towards freedom in the
North. For example, the spiritual song “Let My People Go” referenced Harriet
Tubman, an influential leader in the Underground Railroad, as Moses, because
she led her people to freedom as well (Ramey 11). Slaves were under such
scrutiny and observation that they had to develop their own language as a form
of rhetorical resistance.

The integration of biblical references
was a huge component of the establishment of spirituals, in which the songs
focus on biblical references as a whole, both figuratively and literally. The
songs of worship developed in the nineteenth century were sung to unify the
slaves, serve as an outlet for their innovation, represent a bond with God, and
still often represent alternative meanings that signified enacting change to
fight the conditions of slavery without being caught on by plantation owners. Although
numerous rhythmical and sonic elements of African American spirituals can be
traced to African sources, African American spirituals are a musical form that
is indigenous and particular to the religious involvement in the United States
of Africans and their future relatives. They are a result of the connection
between music and religion from African music and European origins of religion.
After slavery ended, two separate points of view on spirituals developed. Some
African Americans needed to put the past behind them alongside anything that served
as a reminder of their oppression, torture, and injustice. Others saw the
spirituals as a memorable artistic expression and tried to mesh them into the
musical culture. Post-liberation songs continued to develop with stylistic
similarities to the original African American spirituals, producing genres with
a visible establishment from the sounds of slavery.  

There was an immediate connection to the
rise of racist social themes at the end of the nineteenth century and the conversion
of slave songs towards more modern and clearly racialized forms, which were referred
to and distributed intellectually and commercially as black music (Abreu 2). Revolved
around this legacy and these memories, which were directly related to the
sounds of Africa, slavery and miscegenation, performers and their relationship
with their music, and those whom were simply interested evaluated their future
and initiated the investigation in the study and writing of the historical
backdrop of black music in the Americas (Abreu 2). Individuals who had direct
experiences of the “sounds of slavery” and individuals who set out to
analyze and understand the origin of the songs can mutually display in a representative
manner the significance of, and the new meanings attached to, the discussions and
representations about slave song heritage in the post-abolishment of slaves within
the broader context of the expansion of black music and the exposure of black
musicians in the new music recording industry (Abreu 4). African musical
expression transformed into a type of model for the future, and founded positive
critique in regards to the role of slave descendants in the cultural and
musical context of the United States. Even with those whom were far more
sensitive to the role of music in the declaration of black identity and culture
in the United States, even they were not able to envision or foresee how
powerful black music would become in the United States, from jazz to blues to
gospel and more (Nash 33). As a mark of struggle against racism, or as a marketable
product of the music industry, the role of black music is unquestionable in the
powerful contemporary cultural evolution of the Black American community.

Slaves songs and spirituals express
emotional depth that carries throughout time. The slaves were looking for
redemption, and it is clear that that will always be needed in the present and
the future. In the 1870s, a group from Fisk University in Nashville, The
Jubilee Singers, were the first choir to bring “Negro spirituals” to religious
masses (Jackson 18). Other black colleges soon followed, which allowed for the
expansion of African and African American culture and the public portrayal and
expression of a majority of their experiences as slaves (Jackson 18). Negro
spirituals are carried on today in many churches, especially in primarily African-American
churches and in times of support towards black history programs. Many African
Americans still state that those songs serve a greater meaning for them,
knowing the connotation behind them and how much that meant to their relative ancestors.

The ignorance towards African American
culture is clear, both in Caucasians and in African Americans. It appears apparent
that quite a lot of young African-Americans do not know their history, and this
issue is becoming more noticeable as time goes on. A lack of contact to
spirituals and slave songs truly eradicates a large component to understanding
the development of African musical culture within the United States. Certain
courses, such as the Music of Black Americans offered at Fairfield University,
in African-American history and arts allow for the knowledge of spirituals and
slave songs, among other topics, to be analyzed and spread further. However, it
is clear that the majority of these courses are not required or even highly
recommended to students or those with a focus on learning other topics. When
taken, students are able to develop an understanding and appreciation for
genres such as slave songs and spirituals when they learn of their impact on jazz,
blues, hip hop, and rap, which have been explicitly publicized since the post-abolition
era as time goes on (Nash 37).

The melodic components and implications
of spirituals and slave songs permit the quality and power of these kinds of
music to address to the constant pertinence of these songs in a creative,
political, and social perspective. Today their songs are a vital piece of
worship services. Frequently sung as a major aspect of Martin Luther King Jr.’s
birthday celebrations and Black History Month festivities, mistreated individuals
and groups across the world continue to use them as protest and freedom songs. While
these songs have solid associations to historical and personal experiences, the
entire capacity of the spirituals may not be self-evident. While the songs starting
during the years of enslavement within the United States are generally considered
as plantation, sorrow and jubilee songs, the utilization of these songs goes past
those trademarks.

Rap and hip hop music from the previous few
decades’ reference oppression and liberation to make individuals mindful of
current parallels in current black persecution and the tribulations of black
progenitors as slaves in America, as well as parallels between spirituals and
slave songs and these more modern genres of music. References to oppression and
liberation are significant in well-known music today and in the past. For
example, the song “Stolen Souls of Africa”, by Mike Seeger, was published in
2007, and heavily referenced the elements of slavery and was used as a protest
song in contemporary America (Seeger). Without slave songs and spirituals, songs
with these sorts of meanings would have a different sort of existence, if at
all. The meaning behind slave songs and spirituals motivated the evolution of
songs to be used directly for a cry for liberation and demonstration of
movements. The impact of slavery in the creation and movement of African
American music over the decades and centuries appears through not only the
lyricism of these tunes, but rather, a combination of different attributes and
elements such as the style of call and response, the utilization of percussion
among other instrumental elements, and heavy emotion in the tone of the songs. Through
these suggestions towards slavery and the unconcealed racism of the past, a
parallel to the way African Americans are treated in society today is
demonstrated. References to the immediate association
between African Americans during slavery and African Americans today
demonstrates the struggle that continues, although it is improving, in African
American culture.   

By understanding that music was of utmost
importance to the original slaves, it is seen how the worship of music was passed
on through the numerous generations of slaves on the plantations. It is evident
that music was the highest form of expression for Africans, and still remains
to be that way in the present day Black America. Black gospel music is so
clearly interconnected to secular Black music, as it is also so clearly
interconnected to blues, spirituals, and slave and work songs. Negro spirituals
were deliberated primarily as traditional songs, and were sung by prominent and
influential black performers such as Paul Robeson, where the exposure of these
songs also allowed for an exposure of African American enslavement and the
knowledge behind that topic. Certain choruses, groups, and conjugations were
also publicizing gospel, allowing for an even deeper spread of African American
musical culture. The Civil Rights movement was accompanied with songs modeled
after slave songs and spirituals, songs that fought for their liberation and
protested oppression, some in a signifying manner. Examples of these songs in
Gospel include “We Shall Overcome”, which can be directly paralleled to
spirituals sung during the era of slaves because it utilizes religion as a form
of hope, motivation, and escape from current oppressions.

Spirituals, which evolved from slave
songs, began to be considered pieces of the American and African American
heritage in the twentieth century. They are now mentioned in a variety of black
history programs and Martin Luther King Jr. Day celebrations (Hummon 57). While
spirituals may be spread through the evolution of gospels, blues, and more, the
integrity of these songs must somehow remain, as the history and purposes of
the foundation of these genres cannot be overlooked without losing sight of a
large portion of African American history. Benjamin Harpert, and assistant
professor of music in the Department of Performing Arts at Georgetown University
states that “You cannot imagine American music without its African influences.
It just doesn’t exist” (Hummon 32). Black music adds a coating of diversity to
the American identity and persistently responds to the experience of black
Americans in correlation to their history, culture, and creativity within the
arts. The musical elements, such as the call and response style, simple but
overlapping beats created from the patterns of a group of people, and more as
well as the lyrics of the slave songs and spirituals and their musical progeny should
be recorded in historical accounts as well as be analyzed on a musical note, in
order to fully understand the daily struggles and hopes of the variety of generations
of black Americans and how they dealt with these circumstances through a
creative outlet. Slave music was not just an extravagance to be enjoyed in leisure
time but at the same time was a necessity to religious and physical survival.
The current parallel is that black music is a necessity to survival of the
oppression remaining and moving forward with the painful history of their

A demonstration of how heavily elements
from slave songs and spirituals influence music and the ultimate understanding
of African American history, culture, and music today is evident through the
piece, “Wade in the Water”, sung by Ella Jenkins and the Goodwill Spiritual Choir
of Monumental Baptist Church (Jenkins). The musical elements of the song
consist of a strong female voice with the reiteration of each word from the
harmony of the group in the background. A soft drumming beat is consistent in
the background of the song, and the call and response element, which was so
well known to slaves, is utilized. Syncopation is evident within this song. The
call and response was demonstrated as Ella Jenkins sang a phrase and the whole
group answered with a separate response phrase. As usual in spirituals, there
was an emphasis on simple rhythm. As slaves were not allowed to use musical
instruments, they utilized their bodies instead. “Wade in the Water” was a
prominent African American spiritual within the era of slaves. Lyrics include “Wade
in the water, wade in the water, children, wade in the water, God’s a gonna
trouble the water.1. See that host all dressed in white, God’s a gonna trouble
the water” (Jones 10). This is a perfect example of the discrete meanings of
the songs that slaves sung that seemed outwardly innocent. This song references
the Jordan River, which served as a double meaning towards the Ohio River in
the nineteenth century, which represented the crossing of the river towards
freedom (Jones 10). The lyrics are suggested to signify empowerment and freedom
as it is based off of a biblical passage in which the Spirit of the Lord God is
able to proclaim liberty to the captives and bind up the broken hearted (Jones
11). Many spirituals have very similar musical phrases, meanings, melodic
fragments, and harmonies, as depicted in “Wade in the Water”. The reason that I
chose to do my musical analysis on this song, specifically sung by Ella Jenkins
and the Monumental Baptist Spiritual Choir, is because they were well known for
publicizing and performing American Negro Folk music, which demonstrates how
heavily spirituals were able to be worked into other genres of music and the
continual culture of African Americans.

            This paper ultimately served the
purpose of demonstrating how heavily related spirituals and slave songs are to
other aspects of African American musical culture. I believe it is necessary to
understand the general historical background and context of slave songs and
spirituals in order to truly understand the evolution of black Americans and
their creative history, which is important in understanding American history as
a whole. While many of us are aware of the history behind slavery in America,
the heaviest focus towards understanding this history today is not majorly
music. While music should not be the only element considered when looking at
the evolution of African American culture, it is necessary in formulating a
deeper understanding of the events and oppression that occurred, and is still
occurring, in this timeline. Understanding the creative expression gives heavy
insight on a group of people and what they were going through at a certain time,
and I only realized this when I was presented with the Music of Black Americans
course and was forced to sit down and actually analyze historical records of
musical art. The connection between spirituals and slave songs is evident to me
when examining the foundations of other genres of Black Music and other eras,
such as the Civil Rights Movement, that occurred after slavery liberation.  



















Works Cited

Abreu, Martha. “The Legacy of Slave
Songs in the United States and Brazil: Musical Dialogues in the
Post-Emancipation Period.” “O legado das canções escravas nos
Estados Unidos e no Brasil: diálogos musicais no pós-abolição”. Revista
Brasileira De Historia, vol. 35, no. 69, jan-jun2015, pp. 1-28.

Hummon, David M. “Climbing Jacob’s
Ladder: Reconstructing the Ladder in African American Spirituals.” Journal
of American Culture, vol. 31, no. 2, June 2008, pp. 164-174.

Zora Neale. “Characteristics of Negro expression.” Signifyin’,
Sanctifyin’, and Slam Dunking: A Reader in African American Expressive Culture
(1934): 293-308.

Jackson, Joyce Marie. “The changing
nature of gospel music: A southern case study.” African American Review
29.2 (1995): 185-200.

Jenkins, Ella. “Wade in the Water”. African-American
Folk Rhythms, 1998,

Johnson, James Weldon, and J. Rosamond
Johnson. The books of American Negro spirituals. Da Capo Press, 2002.

Arthur. Wade in the water: The wisdom of the spirituals. Leave a Little Room
Fdn, 2005.

Nash, Elizabeth. Autobiographical
Reminiscences of African-American Classical Singers, 1853-present: Introducing
Their Spiritual Heritage Into the Concert Repertoire. Edwin Mellen Press, 2007.

Lauri. Slave songs and the birth of African American poetry. Springer, 2008.

Seeger, Mike. “Stolen Souls from Africa”.
Library of Congress, 2007,


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