Music Is The Message: The Legacy & Tradition of ‘The Spiritual’

Music Is The Message: The Legacy & Tradition of ‘The Spiritual’

How do a stolen people, deprived of their languages, identities and cultures, endure? How do they begin to undo a history of silence, without license to communicate through the written word? And how do they pray when they’ve been told who their god should be?

Those answers can be found hidden deep within the art of the spiritual – more commonly referred to as the negro spiritual – and they tell a story of survival.

Spirituals are folk music: songs created extemporaneously and in secret by Africans captured and brought to the Southern region of the United States to be sold into slavery. These songs, both of sorrow and hope, were passed down orally; over time they evolved into a deeply personalized way for slaves and their descendants to reclaim, express and make sense of faith. And to share a heavy burden.

Spirituals were also a way for slaves to communicate without their masters’ knowledge. And like so many other black musical exports, the spiritual – intrinsic to the slave narrative – went from the (proverbial) cotton field to the global stage, giving birth to the gospel music regularly performed in places of worship.

With the contemporary mass appeal of gospel music, however, many have lost visceral contact with the sometimes unsettling, yet also healing and transformative powers of the spiritual. A music that inherently demanded a level of vocal and musical complexity and sophistication – which proved to be difficult to record – has been nearly forgotten today.

“The best that we can do, however, with paper and types, or even with voices, will convey but a faint shadow of the original. The voices of the colored people have a peculiar quality that nothing can imitate; and the intonations and delicate variations of even one singer cannot be reproduced on paper,” stated editors William Francis Allen, Charles Pickard Ware and Lucy McKim Garrison in Slave Songs of the United States. “… The most obstinate Scripture phrases or snatches from hymns they will force to do duty with any tune they please, and will dash heroically through a trochaic tune at the head of a column of iambs with wonderful skill.”

TIDAL has partnered with The Equal Justice Initiative to help mark the opening of The National Memorial for Peace and Justice, the United States’ first-ever comprehensive memorial dedicated to the African American lives lost at the hands of extrajudicial murder, lynching and racial terror, while exposing the darkly risen legacy of slavery in North America.

In honor of bringing such histories to a national forefront, it seems appropriate to shine light on a core element of survival for those who suffered so greatly and their descendants: music. Here are some things to know about the genre’s legacy and tradition, and why it needs to be protected at all costs.

The Name
The Library of Congress says the term “spiritual” derives from the King James Bible translation of Ephesians 5:19: “Speaking to yourselves in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody in your heart to the Lord.”

Underground Railroad
Slaves used spirituals as a way to communicate; Harriet Tubman and other slaves used them as a method  to communicate during their struggle for freedom. These songs often contained coded language and hidden messages, giving directions on how to escape, often signaling strategies and directions to use to break free from bondage.

Jubilee Singers
The Jubilee Singers, a bevy of former slaves from Fisk University in Nashville, Tennessee, were the first to tour the world performing spirituals. Formed in the 1870s, the chorus sparked an international interest in the genre and helped establish the concert hall tradition of performing spirituals.

First Black Hymnal
Founding bishop of the African Methodist Episcopal Church Richard Allen used spirituals to create the first anthology of hymns collected for use by a black congregation.

Civil Rights Movement
Spirituals were an integral part of the Civil Rights movement and a rich source for Civil Rights leaders. Spirituals, along with other hymns, were adapted with new words, creating  protest songs that emphasized the struggle for freedom and equality — such as voting rights. Spirituals also breathed life into modern freedom songs such as “We Shall Overcome.”

(Photo credit: Pamela Au/


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