Spirituals: A Brief History (2 of 2)

Plantation Slave Singers

This is post 2 of 2 in the series The Evolution of Spirituals.

African American spirituals are often called “sorrow songs.” While sorrow permeates many of the songs, spirituals are much more than that. They are faith songs. They strength songs. They are hope songs. They are unity songs. They are resistance songs.

Camp Meetings

The Second Great Awakening was a religious revival that occurred roughly from the 1780s through the 1850s. Initially, it was led by Evangelical Protestant preachers. After the first few decades, Baptist and Methodist preachers became active leaders of the movement.

Outdoor religious services called camp meetings were one of the most common ways to preach the revival message during the Second Great Awakening. Camp meetings were held in tents in the countryside, on the frontier, or in the backcountry. They could last for days and include thousands of participants. The participants, mostly rural farmers and their families, sang and prayed in a large tent and often slept in smaller tents nearby. Camp meetings were highly emotional events with preaching about sin and Jesus as the only path to save one’s soul from the fires of hell.

Religious Camp Meeting
Religious Camp Meeting, watercolor by J. Maze Burbank c. 1839

African Americans took part in camp meetings, even in slave states, though often in segregated sections. Some black ministers preached at the meetings. In 1818 the African Methodist Episcopal (AME) Church held the first camp meeting organized by and for African Americans. (See post 1 in this series for more about the AME Church, the first independent Protestant denomination founded by African Americans.) Other black churches, primarily Methodist and Baptist, sponsored camp meetings throughout the 19th century.

Spiritual Songs/Camp Meeting Hymns

There were generally no hymnbooks in the early years of camp meetings. People sang from memory or learned songs at the meetings. From the energetic, highly emotional, noisy atmosphere of the meetings, a new kind of hymn and style of singing emerged.

Camp-meeting hymns sometimes used popular or folk song melodies to accompany isolated lines from prayers and scriptures. They often incorporated call-and-response singing, with a leader singing a verse and the congregation joining on the chorus or refrain. The new hymns also had wandering refrains and verses that appeared in multiple songs.

Both call-and-response singing and wandering refrains were African American innovations that first appeared in print in Richard Allen’s 1801 hymnal “A Collection of Spiritual Songs and Hymns Selected from Various Authors by Richard Allen, African Minister.” Allen’s hymnal was the first song collection published expressly for a black congregation. (See post 1 in this series for more about the ways in which the songs in Allen’s hymnal differed from earlier European American hymns and psalms.)

Contemporaries wrote about differences between traditional European American and African American religious singing. A report from an 1838 camp meeting held in Pennsylvania noted, “Their shouts and singing were so very boisterous that the singing of the white congregation was often completely drowned in the echoes and reverberations of the colored people’s tumultuous strains.” Swedish novelist Fredrika Bremer wrote of a camp meeting in Georgia, “A magnificent choir! Most likely the sound proceeded from the black portion of the assembly, as their number was three times that of the whites, and their voices are naturally beautiful and pure.”

More than a dozen writers reported that African Americans sang long into the night on their own segregated “shouting-ground” after other participants had gone to bed. Wesleyan Methodist John F. Watson was disdainful about African American singing practices, but his 1819 writings are very informative. According to Watson, “In the blacks’ quarter, the coloured people get together, and sing for hours together, short scraps of disjointed affirmations, pledges, or prayers, lengthened out with long repetition choruses. These are all sung in the merry chorus-manner of southern harvest field, or husking-frolic method, of the slave blacks.”

Watson is describing the performance of songs that were coming to be known as camp-meeting hymns or spiritual songs. Some of the songs were improvised on the spot, fitting lines from the Bible, references to everyday experiences, and wandering verses and refrains to familiar tunes. Some of the wandering verses and refrains improvised in these new spiritual songs had been printed in Allen’s 1801 and 1818 hymnals. Some were also present in later spirituals.

The songs and performance practices of African Americans at the camp meetings were having an influence on the white participants. Watson writes, “The example has already visibly affected the religious manners of some whites. I have known in some camp meetings, from 50 to 60 people crowd into one tent, after the public devotions had closed, and there continue the whole night, singing tune after tune, (though with occasional episodes of prayer) scarce one of which were in our hymn books.”

The Ring Shout

Watson also provided the earliest written account of a ceremony of African origin called a ring shout, or shout. A shout is an event in which participants sing a spiritual with strong rhythmic drive while shuffling in a ring formation. Watson observed “With every word so sung, they have a sinking of one or other leg of the body alternately; producing an audible sound of the feet at every step, and as manifest as the steps of actual Negro dancing in Virginia, etc. If some, in the meantime, sit, they strike the sounds alternately on each thigh.”

Ring Shout

Ring dances were common in many parts of Africa. In the United States, shouts often took place on Sundays or praise nights in the praise house or cabin after the regular meeting was over. They were also seen in New York City markets and in Place Congo, or Congo Square, in New Orleans. Shouts could last four or five hours, with the song taking on the character of a repetitive chant.

“Good Lord (Run Old Jeremiah)” is a ring shout spiritual sung by Joe Washington Brown and Austin Coleman. Folklorists John and Alan Lomax recorded it in 1934 in Jennings, Louisiana, for the Library of Congress.


The improvised religious songs sung by African American Christians at camp meetings, on rural plantations, and in urban churches resulted in a large body of spirituals. Some spirituals were intended to be sung in worship services, others for ring shouts, funerals, or “jes’ sittin’ around.” The word “spiritual” appears to have been commonly used to refer to these songs by the 1860s.

Spirituals were the result of improvisation. A lead singer would sing a line, and others would repeat it or reply with a chorus or refrain. Anyone could interject a new verse. Some lines might be repeated, remembered, and sung the next time. Material from multiple songs or scriptural readings were combined with ideas from personal experiences. Wandering phrases, verses, or refrains appeared in more than one song. The melodies were also born of improvisation, and some tunes might be used for multiple sets of lyrics.

Perhaps the most important element of the spiritual was the performance itself. This was participatory music not intended for an audience. Spirituals demonstrated many characteristics of African music: intense emotion, call and response, polyrhythms, bent notes, blue notes, repetition of rhythmic figures, off-beat phrasings, and body percussion.

Spirituals turned biblical stories into songs. Many centered on faithful servants of God, like Noah, Daniel, and Jonah, who were saved from a sinful world of oppression. One of the most commonly-referenced people in spirituals is Moses. His story of delivering the Israelites from bondage in Egypt resonated with the enslaved African Americans.

“Go Down, Moses” is one of the best-known spirituals. Harriet Tubman said that she used the song to signal that she was nearby and able to help those who wanted to escape. Some slaveholders forbade the singing of it, feeling threatened by the call-and-response message “Let my people go!”

When Israel was in Egypt’s land
Let my people go
Oppressed so hard they could not stand
Let my people go

Coded Messages

Many spirituals had messages that were not as direct as that of “Go Down, Moses.” “Steal Away” could be an invitation to escape from bondage. It could also be a call to meet in the woods for a secret meeting to pray or to make plans to run away. Some reports indicate that Nat Turner, who organized a violent uprising of enslaved people, used the song as a call to action.

Steal away, steal away
Steal away to Jesus
Steal away, steal away home
I ain’t got long to stay here

Harriet Tubman used the song “Wade in the Water” to tell escaping slaves to literally put themselves into bodies of water to avoid being seen and to ensure that the slave-catchers’ dogs couldn’t sniff out their scent.

Wade in the water
Wade in the water, children
Wade in the water
God’s gonna trouble the water

The lyrics to spirituals have vivid imagery and symbolic language. Moses represented deliverance from bondage. Egypt and Babylon were the American South. Hell was the Deep South. Slave owners were Pharaoh. The River Jordan was the Ohio River, or any body of water across which lay freedom in the North. The many modes of movement – chariots, wheels, shoes, trains – represented escape.

While spirituals often had these hidden subtexts, they were also beautiful songs of Christian faith, hope, and spirit.

Spirituals in Print – “Slave Songs of the United States”

As early as 1800, observers wrote down lyrics to songs they heard enslaved people singing. The first spiritual to be published in print was “Let My People Go. A Song of the ‘Contrabands’,” a version of “Go Down, Moses.” The song was issued in a Northern abolitionist newspaper in December of 1861. It had been learned and written down by the Reverend Lewis C. Lockwood, a missionary to the ex-slaves who took refuge from the Civil War at Fortress Monroe, Virginia.

During the Civil War, three northern abolitionists were educating freedmen on the Sea Islands near Port Royal, a harbor commanding the approach to Charleston, South Carolina. Fascinated by the singing of the newly-freed African Americans, Francis Allen, Lucy McKim Garrison, and Charles Pickard Ware wrote down the texts and notated the music of the songs they heard. They published the songs and their observations in the 1867 book “Slave Songs of the United States.” The book was the first published collection of African American plantation songs. It included melodies and text for 136 songs, most of which were spirituals.

Slave Songs of the United States
Slave Songs of the United States

The editors acknowledged that it was impossible to capture the nuance of the singing and melodies in printed form. “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. There is no singing in parts, as we understand it, and yet no two appear to be singing the same thing.” Nevertheless, since recording technology was not yet developed, “Slave Songs of the United States” provides a vital repertoire and in-depth representation of what spirituals sounded like during the time of slavery.

Spirituals on Stage – The Fisk Jubilee Singers

In 1866 Fisk University was established in Nashville, Tennessee to educate newly-freed African Americans. Treasurer and music professor George L. White formed a choral ensemble at Fisk that specialized in singing spirituals. White, a white Northerner, arranged the songs in a way that refined them for the concert stage and maintained the essence of their unique power and beauty.

The Fisk Jubilee Singers, 1882

In 1871 the Fisk Jubilee Singers began performing on tour to raise money for the struggling university. In the United States and in Europe, they earned standing ovations and praise from the media. Theodore Seward’s song arrangements were published in books and sung by black and white congregations in the North and South. The Fisk Jubilee Singers were instrumental in introducing spirituals to the world. A version of the ensemble is still active today.

Since audio recording technology had not yet been developed by the time slavery ended in the United States, we will never hear the spirituals as they were originally sung. Their sounds can be imagined through song books like “Slave Songs of the United States” and descriptions from other contemporary sources. The echoes of spirituals can be heard in the singing of the Fisk Jubilee Singers and the many other artists who have since performed and recorded them. Their pulse can be felt in gospel music, freedom songs from the Civil Rights Movement, blues, jazz, rhythm and blues, rock and roll, and hip hop.

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