As they had done in the Motherland, the early African slaves came together as a community to share stories of their daily lives, to worship God, and to pay homage to their ancestors through music and dancing. The gatherings where the slaves joined together to create this new music appeared to be religious in nature and did possess some elements of Christianity. But the gatherings were truly more "spiritual" in nature, in that they were designed to create new kinship bonds and indoctrinate members with the hopes and values held by the community proponents of this Africanized Christianity.
To appeal to God, call out to the ancestors, and talk with each other, the slaves continued the sacred African circle dance known as the "ring shout." The dance combines singing with rhythmic shuffle dancing performed in a circle and executed in a counterclockwise movement. The songs usually consist of a single stanza (referred to as a "walk") and a single chorus, usually sung at a quicker and more striking tempo, eventually building up to a state of frenzied ecstasy. Observers often saw the practice of the ring shout as "primitive" or "savage" because they did not understand the African tradition of "spirit possession," where the dancer's goal was to feel "taken over" by a divine essence.
The creation of the spirituals was not merely useful, but imperative. As observed by James H. Cone in The Spirituals and the Blues: An Interpretation, the spirituals were "not an artistic creation for its own sake; rather tells [sic] about the feelings and thinking of African people, and the kinds of mental adjustments they had to make in order to survive in an alien land." Africans held a tradition of creating music to accompany every aspect of their lives, and sharing proverbs to express their cultural values and worldview. The spirituals served as both music and proverbs for the slave communities. The songs accompanied the slaves in their daily tasks in the form of field and works songs such as "My Soul Be At Res'" (quoted in Parrish):
One a dese mornin's—it won't be long, my soul be at res'.
One a dese mornin's—it won't be long, my soul be at res'.
Be at res'—goin' be at res', my soul be at res'.
Be at res' til Judgment Day, my soul be at res'.
And when the day's work was done, the lyrics of the spirituals acted as proverbs to express their commitment to life and the hope of eventual release, be it freedom or death:
Oh walk together, children, don't you get weary,
Oh talk together, children, don't you get weary,
Oh sing together, children, don't you get weary,
There's a great camp-meeting in the Promised Land.
The repetition in such songs made them easy to learn and share with others, and the parallel structure made spontaneous creation of new verses that spoke of current events a simple matter. Recall that the Sasa is comprised of current and recent events and that Africans (likewise the African slaves) habitually would come together as a community to share stories from the day. Also, the simple yet steady rhythm of the field and work songs provided a cadence for hoeing, chopping, picking, threshing – any activity in which the slaves might be engaged, again reflective of the African predilection for functional music.
An additional way captive Africans dealt with the trauma of slavery was through taking their shared experiences, shared values, and shared understanding of the world and calling upon the wisdom of the past for instruction and guidance. It is this process, occurring within the creation of the spirituals, that the African slaves and the concept of the Sasa underwent their most radical New World transformation.
Recurrent themes in the spirituals include daily toil and weariness, suffering and loss, healing and hope for eventual release (either through liberation or death), and struggle and resistance. Again, the African need for musical functionality, and the temporal view of looking from the now-moment into the past is behind such thematic choices. And while the need to express their pain and suffering and hope was important, with spirituality as the nexus of the African ontology, it was even more important to worship God and venerate the ancestors.
One additional point concerning the African view of time needs to be made here, and that has to do with how Africans viewed death in relation to their view of time.
So, the dead are not dead, as far as Africans are concerned. The spirits of the departed remain member of the family and the community, and they must be recognized and honored as the elders that they are. It is this reverence for the spirits of the dead that observers, ignorant of African traditional beliefs, misunderstood as "ancestor worship." In light of this, one of the most remarkable events the early slaves created to inhabit the Sasa was the "reconstitution of the tribal ancestors through the texts of the spirituals. In the formation of such songs as "Joshua Fit De Battle Of Jericho" and "Didn’t My Lord Deliver Daniel," and especially "Go Down, Moses," the slaves essentially plucked biblical heroic figures and set them up as their new departed relatives, who would eventually shift into and take the place of " the ancestors." The significance of such a transformation cannot be overstated, as it was key to the slaves's continued survival.
Generations raised with the spirituals agree that one of the most popular biblical heroes referenced in the songs is Moses, savior of the Hebrews held in bondage in Egypt . In the spirituals, Moses is second only to Jesus as a central subject. The parallels between the situation faced by the Hebrew captives and the African captives is obvious, but there was another important reason that the character of Moses was so popular.
Since Moses had been adopted as a relative and was thus included in the community kinship bond, "Brother Moses," along with many other biblical heroes, became a part of the communal Sasa. "By entering individuals in the Sasa period," states Mbiti, "they become our contemporaries." And if, in the fullness of the Sasa, a man could come from the ranks of the enslaved to deliver his people from bondage once, it could happen again.
The "divine essence" being called upon in the practice of the ring shout included the spirits of the ancestors, who, according to African spiritual beliefs, might be reborn to the community in the body of a new child. Moses, or someone like him could be reborn. Until then, through the Sasa, every individual in the community had access to him as a brother or father or personal hero, a source of hope, and as bedrock for forbearance and resistance.