Arthur C. Jones
© 2004 by The Spirituals Project
No portion of this material may be reproduced by any means without written permission from The Spirituals Project.
The spirituals are the religious folk songs created and first sung by African Americans in slavery. "Swing Low, Sweet Chariot;" "Joshua Fit the Battle of Jericho;" "Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child;" "Go Down, Moses;" "Steal Away to Jesus;" "Didn't My Lord Deliver Daniel?;" "Wade in the Water;" these are some of the best known survivors of the hundreds of remarkable religious folk songs that were created by enslaved African Americans. In fact, many Americans from all ethnic backgrounds can remember "growing up" with these songs, which were created by a circumscribed community of people in bondage but eventually came to be regarded as the first "signature" music of the new American nation. In time, the spirituals were offered as a gift to the whole world, exerting their cultural impact well into the beginning of the twenty-first century.
What is the Difference Between the Spirituals and Gospel Music?
Many people ask what the difference is between the spirituals and Black gospel music. Simply put, the spirituals are the Southern sacred "folk" songs created and first sung by African Americans during slavery. Their original composers are unknown, and they have assumed a position of collective ownership by the whole community. They lend themselves easily to communal singing. Many are in a call-and-response structure, with back-and-forth exchanges between the leader and the group. A formal concert tradition has evolved from the original spirituals, with solo and choral arrangements based on original slave melodies, employed for performance by amateur and professional artists. Black gospel music originated in the churches of the urban North in the 1920's, and has been the predominant music of the twentieth century Black Church. Each gospel song has an identifiable composer. Gospel fuses musical elements of both the spirituals and the blues, and incorporates extensive musical improvisation, with piano, guitar or other instrumental accompaniment. While the gospel tradition descended directly from the spirituals and the blues, the spirituals have also continued to exist as a parallel cultural force.
To learn more about the Black gospel music tradition and its history, visit the following websites:
The History of Gospel Music
African American Gospel Music Resource