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Samantha BrownTheMusic of Black Americans ProfessorTorff December17, 2017 The Necessity for an Understanding ofSlave Songs and Spirituals in Understanding African American Musical Culture asa Whole The legacy of slave songs from the livesof African Americans throughout their enslavement remains today, in whichAfrican tradition was heavily integrated into a form of communication among theslaves through signified meaning, and an integration of religion allowed forthe evolution of spirituals.Slave songs and spirituals represented a way to voice the struggle for freedomand hope while maintaining the African culture that many white Americans weretrying to dissipate.Although sometimes overlooked or briefly considered, slave songs and spiritualsare trivial aspects of African American culture as a whole, especially when contemplatingthe evolution of African American art and music. A deep understanding of slave songs andtheir relationship with spirituals is necessary to even slightly grasp thefundamental roots of African American history, tradition, music, and culture. Theevolution of African American music is evident through the examination of themeaning 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 asimpressions of their battles and beliefs and additionally to set up their ownparticular dialect or form of communication. Slaves tunes spoke to the soundsof African and African American oppression, and powered the survival and socialbattle of the individuals who were able to keep withdrawn memories of the cultureof the country in which they were stripped from. Today, many are uneducated on the originof African American culture through enslavement within the United States, andtheir conventional perspectives of slavery can be tested by analyzing the manytypes of resistance to dehumanization that developed in slave society. Theseforms of resistance fueled by the slaves in the nineteenth century are heavilyand primarily the records of slave songs and spirituals. Many concentrate onthe remorselessness and dehumanization of slavery, which, obviously, iscritical, however, still neglect to perceive or recognize the ways in whichslaves attempted to force their owners to acknowledge their humanity throughreligion, culture, and music. While slave songs started as a route for slavesto communicate without being understood by plantation owners, spiritualsstarted as a development of this type of communication with an integration ofreligion. Both forms of music represented their struggle to maintain hope,their self-support, and their aspirations for freedom.

Frederick Douglass, aformer slave, once stated that “The remark in the olden time was notunfrequently made, that slaves were the most contented and happy laborers inthe world, and their dancing and singing were referred to in proof of thisalleged fact; but it was a great mistake to suppose them happy because theysometimes 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 andtherefore spirituals was derived directly from the regulations that theplantation owners placed on their slaves.

Drums, song, and dance triggered fearand suspicion in slave owners, pushing them to only allow music that seemed tohelp the efficiency of the field work, or promoted the Christian religion. Worksongs were a significant component of slave songs, and were utilized as either self-motivationof the slaves or as specific instructions and communication forms between them.Slave songs began to utilize biblical references as ways to express certainmessages. Stories of Moses were often referred to as the freedom fighters,while references to heaven were actually allusions towards freedom in theNorth. For example, the spiritual song “Let My People Go” referenced HarrietTubman, an influential leader in the Underground Railroad, as Moses, becauseshe led her people to freedom as well (Ramey 11). Slaves were under suchscrutiny and observation that they had to develop their own language as a formof rhetorical resistance. The integration of biblical referenceswas a huge component of the establishment of spirituals, in which the songsfocus on biblical references as a whole, both figuratively and literally.

Thesongs of worship developed in the nineteenth century were sung to unify theslaves, serve as an outlet for their innovation, represent a bond with God, andstill often represent alternative meanings that signified enacting change tofight the conditions of slavery without being caught on by plantation owners. Althoughnumerous rhythmical and sonic elements of African American spirituals can betraced to African sources, African American spirituals are a musical form thatis indigenous and particular to the religious involvement in the United Statesof Africans and their future relatives. They are a result of the connectionbetween music and religion from African music and European origins of religion.

After slavery ended, two separate points of view on spirituals developed. SomeAfrican Americans needed to put the past behind them alongside anything that servedas a reminder of their oppression, torture, and injustice. Others saw thespirituals as a memorable artistic expression and tried to mesh them into themusical culture. Post-liberation songs continued to develop with stylisticsimilarities to the original African American spirituals, producing genres witha visible establishment from the sounds of slavery.  There was an immediate connection to therise of racist social themes at the end of the nineteenth century and the conversionof slave songs towards more modern and clearly racialized forms, which were referredto and distributed intellectually and commercially as black music (Abreu 2). Revolvedaround this legacy and these memories, which were directly related to thesounds of Africa, slavery and miscegenation, performers and their relationshipwith their music, and those whom were simply interested evaluated their futureand initiated the investigation in the study and writing of the historicalbackdrop of black music in the Americas (Abreu 2).

Individuals who had directexperiences of the “sounds of slavery” and individuals who set out toanalyze and understand the origin of the songs can mutually display in a representativemanner the significance of, and the new meanings attached to, the discussions andrepresentations about slave song heritage in the post-abolishment of slaves withinthe broader context of the expansion of black music and the exposure of blackmusicians in the new music recording industry (Abreu 4). African musicalexpression transformed into a type of model for the future, and founded positivecritique in regards to the role of slave descendants in the cultural andmusical context of the United States. Even with those whom were far moresensitive to the role of music in the declaration of black identity and culturein the United States, even they were not able to envision or foresee howpowerful black music would become in the United States, from jazz to blues togospel and more (Nash 33). As a mark of struggle against racism, or as a marketableproduct of the music industry, the role of black music is unquestionable in thepowerful contemporary cultural evolution of the Black American community. Slaves songs and spirituals expressemotional depth that carries throughout time. The slaves were looking forredemption, and it is clear that that will always be needed in the present andthe future.

In the 1870s, a group from Fisk University in Nashville, TheJubilee Singers, were the first choir to bring “Negro spirituals” to religiousmasses (Jackson 18). Other black colleges soon followed, which allowed for theexpansion of African and African American culture and the public portrayal andexpression of a majority of their experiences as slaves (Jackson 18). Negrospirituals are carried on today in many churches, especially in primarily African-Americanchurches and in times of support towards black history programs.

Many AfricanAmericans 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 Americanculture is clear, both in Caucasians and in African Americans. It appears apparentthat quite a lot of young African-Americans do not know their history, and thisissue is becoming more noticeable as time goes on. A lack of contact tospirituals and slave songs truly eradicates a large component to understandingthe development of African musical culture within the United States. Certaincourses, such as the Music of Black Americans offered at Fairfield University,in African-American history and arts allow for the knowledge of spirituals andslave songs, among other topics, to be analyzed and spread further.

However, itis clear that the majority of these courses are not required or even highlyrecommended to students or those with a focus on learning other topics. Whentaken, students are able to develop an understanding and appreciation forgenres 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-abolitionera as time goes on (Nash 37). The melodic components and implicationsof spirituals and slave songs permit the quality and power of these kinds ofmusic to address to the constant pertinence of these songs in a creative,political, and social perspective. Today their songs are a vital piece ofworship services. Frequently sung as a major aspect of Martin Luther King Jr.’sbirthday celebrations and Black History Month festivities, mistreated individualsand groups across the world continue to use them as protest and freedom songs. Whilethese songs have solid associations to historical and personal experiences, theentire capacity of the spirituals may not be self-evident. While the songs startingduring the years of enslavement within the United States are generally consideredas plantation, sorrow and jubilee songs, the utilization of these songs goes pastthose trademarks.

Rap and hip hop music from the previous fewdecades’ reference oppression and liberation to make individuals mindful ofcurrent parallels in current black persecution and the tribulations of blackprogenitors as slaves in America, as well as parallels between spirituals andslave songs and these more modern genres of music. References to oppression andliberation are significant in well-known music today and in the past. Forexample, the song “Stolen Souls of Africa”, by Mike Seeger, was published in2007, and heavily referenced the elements of slavery and was used as a protestsong in contemporary America (Seeger). Without slave songs and spirituals, songswith these sorts of meanings would have a different sort of existence, if atall. The meaning behind slave songs and spirituals motivated the evolution ofsongs to be used directly for a cry for liberation and demonstration ofmovements.

The impact of slavery in the creation and movement of AfricanAmerican music over the decades and centuries appears through not only thelyricism of these tunes, but rather, a combination of different attributes andelements such as the style of call and response, the utilization of percussionamong other instrumental elements, and heavy emotion in the tone of the songs. Throughthese suggestions towards slavery and the unconcealed racism of the past, aparallel to the way African Americans are treated in society today isdemonstrated. References to the immediate associationbetween African Americans during slavery and African Americans todaydemonstrates the struggle that continues, although it is improving, in AfricanAmerican culture.   By understanding that music was of utmostimportance to the original slaves, it is seen how the worship of music was passedon through the numerous generations of slaves on the plantations. It is evidentthat music was the highest form of expression for Africans, and still remainsto be that way in the present day Black America. Black gospel music is soclearly interconnected to secular Black music, as it is also so clearlyinterconnected to blues, spirituals, and slave and work songs.

Negro spiritualswere deliberated primarily as traditional songs, and were sung by prominent andinfluential black performers such as Paul Robeson, where the exposure of thesesongs also allowed for an exposure of African American enslavement and theknowledge behind that topic. Certain choruses, groups, and conjugations werealso publicizing gospel, allowing for an even deeper spread of African Americanmusical culture. The Civil Rights movement was accompanied with songs modeledafter slave songs and spirituals, songs that fought for their liberation andprotested oppression, some in a signifying manner. Examples of these songs inGospel include “We Shall Overcome”, which can be directly paralleled tospirituals sung during the era of slaves because it utilizes religion as a formof hope, motivation, and escape from current oppressions. Spirituals, which evolved from slavesongs, began to be considered pieces of the American and African Americanheritage in the twentieth century. They are now mentioned in a variety of blackhistory programs and Martin Luther King Jr.

Day celebrations (Hummon 57). Whilespirituals may be spread through the evolution of gospels, blues, and more, theintegrity of these songs must somehow remain, as the history and purposes ofthe foundation of these genres cannot be overlooked without losing sight of alarge portion of African American history. Benjamin Harpert, and assistantprofessor of music in the Department of Performing Arts at Georgetown Universitystates that “You cannot imagine American music without its African influences.It just doesn’t exist” (Hummon 32). Black music adds a coating of diversity tothe American identity and persistently responds to the experience of blackAmericans in correlation to their history, culture, and creativity within thearts. The musical elements, such as the call and response style, simple butoverlapping beats created from the patterns of a group of people, and more aswell as the lyrics of the slave songs and spirituals and their musical progeny shouldbe recorded in historical accounts as well as be analyzed on a musical note, inorder to fully understand the daily struggles and hopes of the variety of generationsof black Americans and how they dealt with these circumstances through acreative outlet. Slave music was not just an extravagance to be enjoyed in leisuretime 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 theoppression remaining and moving forward with the painful history of theirancestry.

A demonstration of how heavily elementsfrom slave songs and spirituals influence music and the ultimate understandingof African American history, culture, and music today is evident through thepiece, “Wade in the Water”, sung by Ella Jenkins and the Goodwill Spiritual Choirof Monumental Baptist Church (Jenkins). The musical elements of the songconsist of a strong female voice with the reiteration of each word from theharmony of the group in the background. A soft drumming beat is consistent inthe background of the song, and the call and response element, which was sowell known to slaves, is utilized. Syncopation is evident within this song.

Thecall and response was demonstrated as Ella Jenkins sang a phrase and the wholegroup answered with a separate response phrase. As usual in spirituals, therewas an emphasis on simple rhythm. As slaves were not allowed to use musicalinstruments, they utilized their bodies instead. “Wade in the Water” was aprominent African American spiritual within the era of slaves. Lyrics include “Wadein the water, wade in the water, children, wade in the water, God’s a gonnatrouble the water.1. See that host all dressed in white, God’s a gonna troublethe water” (Jones 10). This is a perfect example of the discrete meanings ofthe songs that slaves sung that seemed outwardly innocent.

This song referencesthe Jordan River, which served as a double meaning towards the Ohio River inthe nineteenth century, which represented the crossing of the river towardsfreedom (Jones 10). The lyrics are suggested to signify empowerment and freedomas it is based off of a biblical passage in which the Spirit of the Lord God isable to proclaim liberty to the captives and bind up the broken hearted (Jones11). Many spirituals have very similar musical phrases, meanings, melodicfragments, and harmonies, as depicted in “Wade in the Water”. The reason that Ichose to do my musical analysis on this song, specifically sung by Ella Jenkinsand the Monumental Baptist Spiritual Choir, is because they were well known forpublicizing and performing American Negro Folk music, which demonstrates howheavily spirituals were able to be worked into other genres of music and thecontinual culture of African Americans.

            This paper ultimately served thepurpose of demonstrating how heavily related spirituals and slave songs are toother aspects of African American musical culture. I believe it is necessary tounderstand the general historical background and context of slave songs andspirituals in order to truly understand the evolution of black Americans andtheir creative history, which is important in understanding American history asa whole. While many of us are aware of the history behind slavery in America,the heaviest focus towards understanding this history today is not majorlymusic. While music should not be the only element considered when looking atthe evolution of African American culture, it is necessary in formulating adeeper understanding of the events and oppression that occurred, and is stilloccurring, in this timeline. Understanding the creative expression gives heavyinsight 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 Americanscourse and was forced to sit down and actually analyze historical records ofmusical art.

The connection between spirituals and slave songs is evident to mewhen examining the foundations of other genres of Black Music and other eras,such as the Civil Rights Movement, that occurred after slavery liberation.                    Works CitedAbreu, Martha. “The Legacy of SlaveSongs in the United States and Brazil: Musical Dialogues in thePost-Emancipation Period.” “O legado das canções escravas nosEstados Unidos e no Brasil: diálogos musicais no pós-abolição”. RevistaBrasileira De Historia, vol. 35, no. 69, jan-jun2015, pp. 1-28.

Hummon, David M. “Climbing Jacob’sLadder: Reconstructing the Ladder in African American Spirituals.” Journalof American Culture, vol. 31, no. 2, June 2008, pp.

164-174.Hurston,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 changingnature of gospel music: A southern case study.” African American Review29.

2 (1995): 185-200.Jenkins, Ella. “Wade in the Water”. African-AmericanFolk Rhythms, 1998,

edu/ella-jenkins/wade-in-the-water/childrens/music/track/smithsonian.Johnson, James Weldon, and J. RosamondJohnson. The books of American Negro spirituals. Da Capo Press, 2002.Jones,Arthur. Wade in the water: The wisdom of the spirituals.

Leave a Little RoomFdn, 2005.Nash, Elizabeth. AutobiographicalReminiscences of African-American Classical Singers, 1853-present: IntroducingTheir Spiritual Heritage Into the Concert Repertoire. Edwin Mellen Press, 2007.Ramey,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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