Spirituals are often taught to children. I believe that’s because the melodies are simple and easy to learn. The lyrics are repetitious and easily grasped. Many of the spirituals are structured in a call and response manner, ideal for group participation. All of this is true and highlights the African cultural retentions inherent in the music. Still, it does not negate the deeper meanings held in the music, including its historical context. (more)
Ten years ago, I worked as a researcher, conducting oral-history interviews for a project with the Weeksville Heritage Center. Weeksville is an extraordinary museum in central Brooklyn dedicated to the history of the free Black community that was founded there in 1838, when a Black stevedore named James Weeks first purchased the property. This occurred eleven years after Emancipation in New York, as Black residents organized to buy land in order to qualify to vote and build Black political power throughout the borough. Over one hundred years later, in 1968, the neighborhood organized again to preserve the last architectural remnants of the community, successfully fending off city efforts to destroy it during a campaign for urban renewal. The site has been a place of so many triumphs and reversals of history that it felt as though someone made it up. In a way, many people had — it was the culmination of the hopes and dreams of fugitives for freedom across hundreds of years. Part of my job as a researcher was to talk to those who had fought to preserve this history — ordinary Brooklynites who had done the extraordinary. Up until that point, I’d had the good fortune of mostly working at Black-history museums; at Weeksville, I felt I was directly in contact with the past. (more and audio recording)
Thomas Breedlove (2020) To Sing Against Singing: Constraint and Liberation in the Spirituals of Roland Hayes, Political Theology, DOI: 10.1080/1462317X.2020.1855843
The tenor Roland Hayes came to international fame in the Harlem Renaissance, but the obscurity that followed his success reveals the catch-22 that confronted him and many of his contemporaries. Hayes’s career was plagued by the choice between, on the one hand, assimilating black music to narrations of primitivity and authenticity and, on the other, subscribing to projects of black music’s transformation under the tutelage of Western form. The first part of this article traces the tangled discourse on the meaning and significance of the spirituals from Frederick Douglass to the Harlem Renaissance. The second examines how this context shaped Hayes’s career and its reception. The third turns to James Cone to articulate a constructive theological reading of divine liberation in the spirituals. Here, the essay argues that the spirituals’ theology must be heard both within the songs’ historical complexity and as witness to a different understanding of history itself.
Brunson, Brianna. ““Jes Go Back to de Fiel a Singin”: The Spiritual as a Vehicle of Resistance in the Antebellum South.” Global Africana (2020):3.
This article examines the contributions of spirituals—culturally black, southern, religious songs recognized at the turn of the nineteenth century—as vehicles of emotional resistance for those enslaved in the antebellum South. Spirituals, through their charged language, religious overtones, and outlook toward life without/after slavery, attested to the humanity of the enslaved peoples who sang them. These songs allowed people to display desire, happiness, anguish, and opposition, despite their bodies and souls being commodified by dominant society. Singing thus represented the enslaved African’s claim to a certain degree of agency in the midst of bondage. Born out of suffering, spirituals emphasized the harsh realities of slavery while challenging its attempts to police matters of the mind and spirit. By consulting relevant literature, interpreting documented antebellum spirituals, and analyzing testimonies from the Federal Writers’ Project, this article will detail the ways in which songs negotiated the repression of enslaved people’s identity and emotions, making singing a political act of resistance.
Zhao, Peng. “Black Music in the Poetry of Langston Hughes.” Frontiers in Art Research, Vol. 2, Issue 5: 34-36, DOI: 10.25236/FAR.2020.020508
The paper attempts to interpret the styles and meanings in the poetry of Hughes and reveals his constant references to black music both in forms and themes to record the black lives. Based on diachronic analysis, the author discovers the most powerful voice Hughes adopts in his portrayals of the blacks exists in poetry drawing on spirituals, blues, and jazz.
The choir Wings Over Jordan made numerous contributions to choral music using the spirituals. The transmission of spirituals that began within the institution of slavery were adapted for demonstrations and marches during the Civil Rights Movement. The songs were created to illuminate political, social and cultural environmental messages. The recognition of this choir resulted in music recordings, USO tours during World War II, as well as other international performances. The choir performed weekly on the “Negro Hour” over radio station WGAR in Cleveland, Ohio. Check out this Master’s Thesis!
The profound and inspiring story of students who battled prejudice and oppression to sing their way into the nation’s heart.
On November 16, 1871, a group of unknown singers — all but two of them former slaves and many of them still in their teens — arrived at Oberlin College in Ohio to perform before a national convention of influential ministers. After a few standard ballads, the chorus began to sing spirituals — “Steal Away” and other songs” associated with slavery and the dark past, sacred to our parents,” as soprano Ella Sheppard recalled. It was one of the first public performances of the secret music African Americans had sung in fields and behind closed doors. More
Born in Erie on Dec. 2, 1866, Burleigh learned spirituals as a child from his grandfather, Hamilton Waters, a former slave who worked as a lamplighter in Erie.
Burleigh later earned international acclaim as a renowned African-American classical composer, singer, arranger and music editor.
An accomplished baritone, Burleigh, who died in 1949 at age 82, played a significant role in developing American art songs. He composed more than 200 works in that genre and was the first African-American composer acclaimed for his adaptations of African-American spirituals. More
Florence Price (1887-1953) – Little Rock-born composer, educator, pianist and subject of the film “The Caged Bird” – was denied membership in the Arkansas State Music Teachers Association sometime between 1917 and 1927, and because she was African American. A hundred years later, the national branch of that same organization is naming Price as a Foundation Fellow, as Angelita Faller’s release from UA Little Rock yesterday details.