Songs of Slavery and Emancipation

By Mat Callahan

Mat Callahan presents recently discovered songs composed by enslaved people explicitly calling for resistance to slavery, some originating as early as 1784 and others as late as the Civil War. He also presents long-lost songs of the abolitionist movement, some written by fugitive slaves and free Black people, challenging common misconceptions of abolitionism. Songs of Slavery and Emancipation features the lyrics of fifteen slave songs and fifteen abolitionist songs, placing them in proper historical context and making them available again to the general public. These songs not only express outrage at slavery but call for militant resistance and destruction of the slave system. There can be no doubt as to their purpose: the abolition of slavery, the emancipation of African American people, and a clear and undeniable demand for equality and justice for all humanity. See at the University of Mississippi Press website

Performing Racial Uplift

E. Azalia Hackley and African American Activism in the Post-Bellum to Pre-Harlem Era By Juanita Karpf

rediscovers the career of Black activist E. Azalia Hackley (1867–1922), a concert artist, nationally famous music teacher, and charismatic lecturer. Growing up in Black Detroit, she began touring as a pianist and soprano soloist while only in her teens. By the late 1910s, she had toured coast-to-coast, earning glowing reviews. Her concert repertoire consisted of an innovative blend of spirituals, popular ballads, virtuosic showstoppers, and classical pieces. She also taught music while on tour and visited several hundred Black schools, churches, and communities during her career. She traveled overseas and, in London and Paris, studied singing with William Shakespeare and Jean de Reszke—two of the classical music world’s most renowned teachers.
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Finding New Meaning in Old Songs

By M. Roger Holland, IIMay 14, 2021

Singer Nat King Cole is one of many artists who recorded the spiritual, “Every Time I Feel the Spirit”, M. Roger Holland’s May pick for CPR Classical’s Journey to Freedom: The Spirituals Radio Project.

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)

To Sing Against Singing: Constraint and Liberation in the Spirituals of Roland Hayes

Thomas Breedlove (2020) To Sing Against Singing: Constraint and Liberation in the Spirituals of Roland Hayes, Political Theology, DOI: 10.1080/1462317X.2020.1855843

Roland Hayes (1887-1977) | New Georgia Encyclopedia

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.

Jes Go Back to de Fiel a Singin”: The Spiritual as a Vehicle of Resistance in the Antebellum South

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.

image: Hands breaking free from chains.

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.

“Black Music in the Poetry of Langston Hughes”

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!

JUBILEE SINGERS SACRIFICE AND GLORY: American Experience – Documentary

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

Harry T. Burleigh Week

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

Kumbaya: Stories of an African American Spiritual (podcast)

With the help of AFC archivists, Stephen Winick and John Fenn reveal the history of a great work of African American folk creativity: the spiritual “Kumbaya” or “Come By Here.” You’ll hear how it was collected from oral tradition in Georgia and North Carolina in the 1920s, and hear it become the first State Historical Song of Georgia on the floor of the Georgia State Senate. You’ll find out how the words “come by here,” sung in a regional dialect, came to be spelled “Kumbaya” around the world. Listen here