|Stylistic origins||Work song, Christian hymns|
|Cultural origins||African slaves in the U.S.|
|Derivative forms||Blues, Gospel music|
The term spiritual is derived from spiritual song. The King James Bible's translation of Ephesians V.19 is: "Speaking to yourselves in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody in your heart to the Lord." The term spiritual song was often used in the black and white Christian community through the 19th century (and indeed much earlier), and spiritual was used as a noun to mean, according to the context, spiritual person or spiritual thing, but not specifically with regard to song. Negro spiritual first appears in print in the 1860s, where slaves are described as using spirituals for religious songs sung sitting or standing in place, and spiritual shouts for more dance-like music.
Musicologist George Pullen Jackson extended the term spiritual to a wider range of folk hymnody, as in his 1938 book White Spirituals in the Southern Uplands, but this does not appear to have been widespread usage previously. The term though has often been broadened to include subsequent arrangements into more standard European-American hymnodic styles, and to include post-emancipation songs with stylistic similarities to the original Negro spirituals.
Although numerous rhythmical and sonic elements of Negro spirituals can be traced to African sources, Negro spirituals are a musical form that is indigenous and specific to the religious experience in the United States of Africans and their descendants. They are a result of the interaction of music and religion from Africa with music and religion of European origin. Further, this interaction occurred only in the United States. Africans who converted to Christianity in other parts of the world, even in the Caribbean and Latin America, did not evolve this form.
Negro spirituals were primarily expressions of religious faith. Some may also have served as socio-political protests veiled as assimilation to white American culture. They originated among enslaved Africans in the United States. Slavery was introduced to the British colonies in the early 17th century, and enslaved people largely replaced indentured servants as an economic labor force during the 17th century. These people would remain in bondage for the entire 18th century and much of the 19th century. Most were not fully emancipated until the ratification of the Thirteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution.
During slavery in the United States, there were systematic efforts to de-Africanize the captive Black workforce. Enslaved people were forbidden from speaking their native languages.
Because they were unable to express themselves freely in ways that were spiritually meaningful to them, enslaved Africans often held secret religious services. During these “bush meetings,” worshippers were free to engage in African religious rituals such as spiritual possession, speaking in tongues and shuffling in counterclockwise ring shouts to communal shouts and chants. It was there also that enslaved Africans further crafted the impromptu musical expression of field songs into the so-called "line singing" and intricate, multi-part harmonies of struggle and overcoming, faith, forbearance and hope that have come to be known as Negro spirituals.
Restrictions were placed on the religious expression of slaves. Rows of benches in places of worship discouraged congregants from spontaneously jumping to their feet and dancing. The use of musical instruments of any kind often was forbidden, and slaves were ordered to desist from the "paganism" of the practice of spiritual possession.
The lyrics of Christian spirituals reference symbolic aspects of Biblical images such as Moses and Israel's exodus from Egypt in songs like Michael Row the Boat Ashore.
Christian hymns and songs were very influential on the writing of African-American spirituals. Slave composers took material from older songs, such as Christian hymns, and the Bible to create something entirely new and special to the culture. Spirituals were not simply different versions of hymns or Bible stories, but rather a creative altering of the material; new melodies and music, refashioned text, and stylistic differences helped to set apart the music as distinctly African-American..
There is also a duality in the lyrics of spirituals. They communicated many Christian ideals while also communicating the hardship that was a result of being an African-American slave. The spiritual was directly tied to the composer's life. It was a way of sharing religious, emotional, and physical experience through song.
Many internet sources and popular books claim that songs such as "Wade in the Water" contained explicit instructions to fugitive slaves on how to avoid capture, and on which routes to take to successfully make their way to freedom. This particular song allegedly recommends leaving dry land and taking to the water as a strategy to throw pursuing bloodhounds off one's trail. "The Gospel Train" and "Swing Low, Sweet Chariot" are equally supposed to contain veiled references to the Underground Railroad, and many sources assert that "Follow the Drinking Gourd" contained a coded map to the Underground Railroad. The authenticity of such claims has been challenged as speculative, and critics have pointed to the apparent lack of primary source material in support of them.
In the 1850s, Reverend Alexander Reid, superintendent of the Spencer Academy in the old Choctaw Nation, hired some enslaved Africans from the Choctaws for some work around the school. He heard two of them, "Uncle Wallace" and "Aunt Minerva" Willis, singing religious songs they had apparently composed. Among these songs were Swing Low, Sweet Chariot, Steal Away to Jesus, The Angels are Coming, I'm a Rolling, and Roll Jordan Roll. Later, Reid, who left Indian Territory at the beginning of the Civil War, attended a musical program put on by a group of Negro singers from Fisk University. They were singing mostly popular music of the day, and Reid thought the songs he remembered from his time in the Choctaw Nation would be at least as appropriate. He and his wife transcribed the songs of the Willises as they remembered them and sent them to Fisk University.
The Jubilee Singers put on their first performance singing the old captives' songs at a religious conference in 1871. The songs were first published in 1872 in a book titled Jubilee Songs as Sung by the Jubilee Singers of Fisk University, by Theodore F. Seward. Wallace Willis died in 1883 or 84.
Over time the pieces the Jubilee Singers performed came to be arranged and performed by trained musicians. In 1873, Mark Twain, whose father had owned slaves, found Fisk singing to be "in the genuine old way" he remembered from childhood, but an 1881 performance review said that "they have lost the wild rhythms, the barbarity, the passion." Fifty years on, Zora Neale Hurston in her 1938 book The Sanctified Church criticized Fisk singers, and similar groups at Tuskegee and Hampton, as using a "Glee Club style" that was "full of musicians' tricks" not to be found in the original Negro spirituals, urging readers to visit an "unfashionable Negro church" to experience real Negro spirituals.
A group of lyrics to Negro spirituals was published by Col. Thomas Wentworth Higginson, who commanded a regiment of former slaves in the Civil War, in an article in The Atlantic Monthly and subsequently included in his 1869 memoir Army Life in a Black Regiment (1869).