The roots of the Black religious experience can be found in the undeniable musical art form commonly called the spiritual. The best estimate of the earliest appearance of the spiritual is 1760. Prior to this date, slaves created and sang early forms of American folk music. The first religious music of the antebellum slaves was the spiritual. The spirituals helped to unite the descendants of various African tribes by singing about their common experience as slaves. The spirituals gave them a sense of identity and stirred in them a hope for freedom. The spirituals were also significant for young slaves because they could not read. By listening to the songs, children learned about the stories of the Bible and the faith experiences of the adults. For the young slaves, singing spirituals was their first introduction to the life of faith. Spirituals are still sung throughout African-American churches, homes, and communities.
Spirituals are meant to be communicative. Some emphasize the coded meaning of spirituals while others note the other-worldly emphasis communicated in spirituals. Whatever interpretations may be given to the message and meaning of spirituals, it is important to remember that the music of spirituals was a means of survival, and a cultural and theological cry of a people. Spirituals express the social and theological beliefs of the slaves. The songs nurtured a sense of faith and hope in an oppressed people, which were passed on to subsequent generations. To understand the significant role spirituals played in the social and religious life of the slave community, it is necessary to investigate the characteristics and nature of the music.
Rhythmic. Just as rhythm is the fundamental trait of African music, so is rhythm the fundamental trait of the African-American spiritual. Rhythm varies across the extensive range of spiritual types. Some are slow and deliberate, others are driving and pulsating, and others possess the beat of elation and celebration. The rhythm helps to express the range of emotions felt by the persons singing the spiritual.
Antiphonal. There is a "call and response" mode found in most spirituals. The authentic spiritual form is not given to solo performance; spirituals are mainly choral in form and structure. There is frequently a soloist that establishes the melody or lead line. The soloist is then responsible for cueing the group into various points of the song. The group takes over with blending voices and improvised harmony.
Participatory. Because of the choral and antiphonal nature of the spiritual, singing is a community event. Everyone is expected to participate. The flexible, improvisational structure of the spirituals gave them the capacity to fit an individual slave's specific experience into the consciousness of the group. One slave's sorrow or joy became everyone's through song. Singing the spirituals was both an intensely personal and vividly communal experience in which an individual received consolation for sorrow and gained a heightening of joy because his or her experience was shared.
Given to Improvisation. The spirituals had easy, repetitive melodies that allowed for spontaneity in the lyrics. The lyrics for the spirituals would change, based upon the daily life experiences of the slaves. The spirituals communicated the slaves' feelings about their plight.
One famous slave spiritual was, "Don' Let Nobody Turn You Round."
During the racial confrontations in Birmingham in 1963, the Blacks interspersed such verses as "Don' let segregation," etc., or "Don' let no jailhouse," etc., which reflected in modern times how easily the spiritual form is given to spontaneity and situational creation of new lyrics.
Repetitive. In most spirituals, the melodic lines and lyric lines repeat with only slight variation. In the slave community, this melodic and lyric repetition helped to enhance the life expectancy of the spiritual because it served as a built-in memory facility for those who could not read. Most slaves could not read, so the stories of their faith, common experience, and heritage had to be learned through memorization. Deep Biblicism. The lyrics for the majority of spirituals are drawn directly from the Bible, with considerable attention given to Old Testament imagery. In many instances, one may find Old Testament and New Testament references within the same song. In the spirituals, a sense of sacred time operates in which the present is extended backward so that characters, scenes, and events from the Bible become dramatically alive and present. When no direct Bible reference is identifiable, the substance of the truth proclaimed in a spiritual is at least biblical in implication. Needless to say, the spiritual is the primary source for communicating the stories of the Bible to the members of the community.
Eternality of Message. One of the most profound traits of the spirituals is that many of them carry a timeless message that fits the contemporary human circumstance. The message speaks not only to the slave condition out of which it was born, but also to the human condition at many points in history, giving it a quality of universality. The message of the spirituals connects the experiences of people across time and place. All of these characteristics obviously contributed to the unique nature of the Black spiritual which, in turn, became the root for all subsequent Black music. But the greatest contributions of the spirituals can be found in the purpose they served to give identity and dignity to the African-American slave community, to pass on the stories of faith and heritage to future generations, and to give hope that there was a better life awaiting those who suffered injustice.
Today the spirituals are still being sung in African- American churches because they are such an integral part of African-American history. The children who hear these songs connect with the experiences of people across time and place-from the captivity to the Jews to the bondage of the slaves-and are inspired by their courage, faith, and hope. Children also learn significant lessons about life from the spirituals. They learn how to treat others, and they learn how to cope with the difficulties of life.