The Place of the Negro Spiritual in American Music

As slaves found refuge in the Judeo-Christian concepts in the Bible and accepted Jesus as their personal savior, the minstrel songs and work songs took on an ethereal, spiritual tone.  “Swing Dat Hammer” and the blues that followed were songs of misery and defeat, songs of the helpless and the hopeless.

The sound of Gospel music was a sound of triumph, love overcoming hate, good conquering evil; a song of peace and joy.  If ever a people rejected hundreds of years of bondage in favor of salvation, this is the group.  If ever the weight of oppression was replaced by the elevation of the soul, this is the occasion.  If ever “a joyful noise was made unto the Lord,” this music personifies it.

As Nikki Giovanni wrote in her 2007 poem “We Go On” in Acolytes,

“We go on answering
a trumpet call
the living savior
for a better tomorrow.”

While it is clear that this music sprang from the hearts of the oppressed, it is equally clear that, as Giovanni tells us, it also sprang from the souls of the “saved.”  Thus, Gospel Music became a universal call to glorify God, one that could be taken up by all races, in all areas of the world.

As we sift through the world of spirituals, note how so many found their way into white churches.  You may love listening to  the incomparable Mahalia Jackson sing “Were You There When They Crucified My Lord?” but don’t be surprised when you discover the deeply emotional version sung by Johnny Cash and the Carter singers in a 1962 TV special.  In fact, many country singers have recorded this spiritual.

However, the biggest surprise came when we heard the world’s largest chorus, in Wales, sing the same Spiritual with incredible power and feeling. It is amazing to witness the introduction of African-American spirituals back into Europe, where they are included in classical programs.


The slaves’ identification with the Israelites, held captive in Egypt, is an integral part of the Spiritual, “Let My People Go.”  We can quickly make the association between the two groups as we listen to the unique voice of Paul Robeson.


In a very interesting jazz arrangement, Louis Armstrong and chorus sing the same type of music.  It is too wonderful not to include it here.


Sung in Gospel style, Robeson sings “Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child,” as does the incomparable Marion Anderson.


It may come as a surprise to find that Armstrong gave us a lasting version of  what he termed “a light Spiritual” called “Nobody Knows the Trouble I’ve Seen.”  As the foregoing performances illustrate, it is very difficult to draw lines between genres.  Jazz musicians and Welsh Choirs should be permitted the opportunity to perform and interpret Gospel Music in their own way.

It is worthwhile to note that it was not in a church but in concert that Spirituals became more widely known to general audiences.  According to David Ewen, George L. White, the Treasurer of Fisk University in Nashville, Tennessee, had a financial hole to fill and decided that all people “might be interested in the poignant music of his race.”  Therefore, he formed a choral group of 12 students (the “Jubilee Singers”) and started to tour in October 1871.  While it took a while for the concerts to catch on, once they did, the result was historic.  

“At the Gilmore Music Festival in Boston in 1872, an audience of some 20,000 rose to its feet and shouted: ‘Jubilee Forever!’  When the Jubilee Singers returned to Fisk University in 1878, they returned with over $150,000 in cash.

Antonin Dvorak

Antonin Dvorak

“The fame of the Negro spiritual–or ‘Jubilee Songs’ as they were first known–now spread rapidly.  Antonin Dvorak, then living in New York, became a convert.  ‘In the Negro melodies of America I discover all that is needed for a great and noble school of music.  They are pathetic, tender, passionate, melancholy, solemn, religious, bold, merry, gay….  It is music that suits itself to any mood and purpose.’  Dvorak himself began to use authentic Negro material in his serious compositions, notably in his Symphony from the New World, written in this country.  In the first movement there is a passing quotation from ‘Swing Low, Sweet Chariot;’ and in the second, there appears a famous melody that has the unmistakable character of an authentic spiritual, even though it is original with Dvorak.”

Emanuel AME Church Charleston, SC

Mother Emanuel

Here let us dwell for a moment in the House of the Lord, the Birthplace of the Spiritual, specifically the House referred to as “Mother Emanuel.” (Emanuel AME Church, 110 Calhoun St, Charleston, SC 29401-3510)  It is the oldest AME church in the south, and during 2016 it lost nine members of the congregation to wanton violence.  These beautiful men and women had done nothing wrong; had spoken ill of no one.  

Hate is only powerful when left unchecked, but it is not unchecked when we, as a nation of individuals, line up on the side of love, not hate.  Love is the driving force behind the music sung by the incomparable Pastor Shirley Caesar.  In response to the events at “Mother Emanuel,” Pastor Caesar released the CD, Fill This House, and dedicated one song to the Church.

Pastor Shirley Caesar, American Gospel Singer

Pastor Shirley Caesar

Gospel is constantly reinventing itself, but the enduring nature of the music remains the same, whether it is performed by Mahalia Jackson in Amsterdam in 1961 or by Paster Caesar in 2016; this genre of music still lifts up its voice in opposition to all that is wrong, not in anger or in revenge but in love.  

Here we would like to give you the opportunity to hear the Spiritual “Fill This House” from Pastor Caesar’s CD and to provide some of the lyrics from that song:

“Thank You for Your Presence; thank you for joy, unspeakable joy.”
“We’re not talking about a building, talking about the inner man.”
“I don’t want to do like I used to do; I don’t want to walk like I used to walk.”

Now, here is the embedded YouTube upload from Entertainment One Nashville (thank you for sharing).