Archive for the ‘Chorus’ Category

by Dr. Michael Pratt

The ancestors of almost virtually 100 percent of African-Americans originally came to the United States as slaves, most of them from West Africa. These slaves, brought here against their will, were allowed no freedom of expression and used religion as a means to speak out against their oppression and for their hopes and dreams of freedom. The white masters allowed these slaves religious freedom because they thought that they could use religion to better control them. Preachers were bought into the plantations to preach to the slaves on such “evils” as disobeying masters and theft of self (running away). The slaves had a natural tendency for musical expression, brought with them from their native Africa, and expressed themselves in the only allowable form, by singing: thus developing the African-American spiritual. The spiritual, which had been in existence almost from the time the first slaves came to America in 1619, came to public attention around the time of the Civil War with the publication of an anthology called “Slave Songs of The United States”. [1] The songs documented in this landmark anthology showed songs with melodies of great beauty and sophistication. No less a musical giant than Antonin Dvorak, while on a teaching tour of the United States in 1893, and while doing research on indigenous American music, gave an interview to the New York Herald in which he is quoted as saying:

In the Negro melodies of America I find all that is needed for a great and noble school of music. They are pathetic, tender, passionate, melancholy, bold, merry, gay, or what you will. There is nothing in the whole range of composition which cannot be supplied from this source…I am satisfied that the future music of this country must be founded on what are called the Negro melodies. [2]

 Dvorak also told Harry Thacker Burleigh, who studied with Dvorak in New York and introduced Dvorak to countless Negro songs, that Go Down, Moses was “as great a melody as any Beethoven wrote.” [3]

In addition to singing at religious gatherings the slaves were allowed to sing “quiet songs” as work songs as long as they did not sing anything against their master. So the slaves began to sing songs using code words and containing secret messages for each other. Many early slave songs yearned for escape to a free country. To them a “home” was any place they could be free and safe. So singing about “Going Home”, while ostensibly about going to Heaven, was in reality an expression of yearning to live in a free land. The way these slaves envisioned traveling “home” was by a chariot or a train. Songs like “Gospel Train” and “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot” were actually references to the Underground Railroad. Crossing the River Jordan referred to crossing over the Ohio River into the North and gaining freedom. In addition to expressing their suppressed feelings, the slaves, through spirituals, could also express their African roots, which they were otherwise forbidden to do.

After a regular worship service, congregations used to stay for a “ring shout”. It was a survival of primitive African dance…The men and women arranged themselves in a ring. The music started, perhaps with a Spiritual, and the ring began to move, at first slowly, then with quickening pace. The same musical phrase was repeated over and over for hours. This produced an ecstatic state. Women screamed and fell. Men, exhausted, dropped out of the ring. [4]

 Many African-American spirituals have a beauty of melody which far out shines the words, which were highly repetitious and in a slave dialect which was completely uneducated at best and unintelligible at worst.

I stood on de ribber ob Jerdon
To see dat ship come sailin’ ober
Stood on de ribber ob Jerdon
o see dat ship sail by

O moaner, don’ya weep,
When ya see dat ship come sailin’ ober
Shout, “Glory, Hallelujah!”
When ya see dat ship sail by

O, sister, ya bettuh be ready
To see ..
Brother, ya bettuh be ready
To see …

O preacher …

Deacon … [5]

The slave’s lack of education forced them to concentrate on the melody and the rhythm of the spiritual, the inherent parts of their musical background from Africa, while the text expressed the reality of their existence. For example, their dread of family separation was expressed in such songs as “Is Massa Goin’ To Sell Us Tomorrow?”, “Farewell To My Only Child”, and “Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child”. Such a great body of musical expression has emerged from the African-American spiritual, as a truly unique and beautiful American art form, that Dr. Alain Locke of Howard University has said that:

Although the Indian possessed a goodly store of folk songs, he failed to become the fount of America’s folk music, because the Negro’s greater rhythmic swing and melodic freedom produced music with a more widespread appeal. Then, too, the more varied emotional life of the Negro slave ranging from light-hearted irresponsibility to gaunt tragedy motivated a richer more diverse folk song. [6]

 The African-American spiritual came to public attention with the end of the civil war and the founding in Nashville, Tennessee of the Fisk Free Colored School. With the school quickly coming to a foundering status, the school’s leader, George White, sent out a small group of singers, still in their teens, to perform a series of concerts featuring the slave songs of the South. Taking the school’s last forty dollars and only the clothes on their backs, the “Jubilee Singers” set forth on a concert tour which eventually lasted for almost seven years and traveled to all parts of the United States and Europe (even performing for Queen Victory herself). The group eventually returned home with over twenty-thousand dollars to save the school (latter renamed Fisk University) after making the African-American spiritual a well known musical art form in the world. The Fisk Jubilee Singers are a well-respected African-American proponent of the spiritual to this day. [7]


 The success of the African-American spiritual encouraged the imitation of the form by white composers like Stephen Foster and songs like “Massa’s in de Cold, Cold Ground” and “De Camptown Races (Gwine to Run All Day)”. As the African-American spiritual developed in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries a counter part developed as an outgrowth of the “camp meeting” movement which had become very popular, starting in Kentucky. The call-and-response format of Black spirituals and White camp meeting songs were very similar. George Pullen Jackson applied the term “White spirituals” to these camp meeting songs and tried to imply that since both Blacks and Whites attended camp meetings together it was the Whites who originated the form of the spiritual at these camp meetings and the Blacks who simply imitated the Whites. [8] Jackson’s arguments were largely refuted several years later by Samuel P. Bayard after his exhaustive study of British-American folk songs. To the question of the African-American spiritual’s truly original African origin (as opposed to some sort of synthesized, European, white-influenced origin) Bayard replies:

The large mass of folk tunes sung by North American Negroes appears, on the whole, to be an independent creation of that people. The influence of imported European (mostly British) folk music is plainly discernable in Negro folk melody, and Negro repertoires are shot through with versions of the principle British folk airs and other popular tunes; yet we cannot help recognizing in the music of this people a fund of song tunes generally distinct from that current among whites. [9]

John F. Garst goes on to say of Jackson’s position that the African-American spiritual is a mere imitation of the White camp meeting song:

He made two fundamental mistakes: (1) He followed a false principle of exclusion and insisted on attributing to the European heritage all characteristics of spirituals found in both the African and European traditions. (2) He went out of his way to deny that certain “racial emphasis” (rhythms, mode preferences, and performance styles of blacks) are African in origin. [10]

 Finally, noted musicologist Henry Edward Krehbiel notes in his landmark study of African-American folk song:

Negro spirituals are traceable to Africa…After analyzing 527 Negro spirituals [he] found their identical prototypes in African music, concluding that intervallic, rhythmical and structural elements of these songs came from the ancestral homelands. [11]

The call-and-response format of many African-American spirituals is rooted in West African culture where call-and-response is used in public gatherings, religious rituals, and vocal and instrumental musical expressions. The slaves brought this format with them to the new world and utilized it in their lives in much the same way as they did in Africa, including religion, sporting events, children’s rhymes, and, notably, in African-American music including spirituals, gospel, rhythm and blues, and jazz. They also brought musical instruments with them from Africa which they utilized in their music as well, such as drums, the banjo, the xylophone, and the marimba. An example of the call-and-response African-American spiritual would be “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot”.

Leader:        Swing low, sweet chariot
Chorus:        Coming for to carry me home
Leader:        Swing low, sweet chariot
Chorus:        Coming for to carry me home
Leader:        If you get there before I do
Chorus:        Coming for to carry me home
Leader:        Tell all my friends, I’m coming too

Chorus:        Coming for to carry me home

An excellent on-line bibliography of resources on the African-American spiritual can be found at http://www.artofthenegrospiritual.com/e-book/index.html. Click on “Bibliographic Resources, General” and use the password “ahhjay”.


Some people are of the opinion that white performers should not attempt to perform African-American music, such as spirituals, because they do not have the proper background to understand the context in which the music was created, the true meaning of the music, or the true manner in which the music should be interpreted and/or performed. No less an authority that contemporary African-American choral conductor and composer Rollo Dilworth of the North Park University in Chicago refutes this. In a lecture at an ACDA convention in Indianapolis, Indiana in the summer of 2005 which this writer attended, Mr. Dilworth made a compelling argument that this music could be learned, properly understood and performed by a choir of any color, White, Black, Yellow, Brown, or Red. He pointed out that Black choirs have the appearance of being a more natural proponent of this music simply because it is in their heritage and they have grown up with it from a very young age. Choirs of all backgrounds, especially White choirs, should be taught spirituals and encouraged to perform them.

A simple way to begin would be to use national standard #9: understanding music in relation to history and culture. The MENC web site contains many relevant documents and lesson plans for the national standards and for the implementation of standard nine in association with understanding the African-American culture of the slave era. [12] Another natural linkage would be the month of February: African-American history month. The MENC web site also contains a wealth of materials which could be used in the classroom to pursue the teaching of this music such as “Play and Discuss the ‘American Saga’ by Hilliard” or “Say It Loud! A Celebration of Black Music in American”. In addition there are links to a wealth of other informational sites such as  “The Center for Black Research”, “African and African American Studies”, “The Gospel Highway”, and “Negrospirituals.com”. Also listed are MENC suggested readings and professional resources. [13]

For the African-American spiritual in a cappella choral format, the most recent proponent of the genre was Moses Hogan. With a large number of arrangements in print, including “The Oxford Book of Spirituals”, a large number of available recordings for reference, and a choir of his own founding that has toured extensively, Mr. Hogan established himself as the frontrunner in promoting the African-American spiritual. Even though he had an untimely early death in 2003, Mr. Hogan has left a rich legacy of spiritual interpretations for the choral director to use in promoting, understanding and performing the African-American spiritual. Other “big name” proponents of the genre which are also available for study and performance are William Dawson [14] and Brazeal Dennard. [15]

The study and performance of African-American spirituals does not need to be relegated only to the classroom or the chorus. These venues can come the closest to recreating the authentic spirit and flavor of the genre and helping the students understand the culture in which the music arose and gain insight into the proper techniques for the respectful recreation of this music, but other ensembles such as the band and the orchestra should not be left out either. Even without the text, which is so meaningful in the creation of this music, and performed by instruments which were not in use by the original proponents of this music (with some exceptions, such as the “fiddle”) the music can have impact and carry meaning to the students, especially if they are instructed in the history and culture from which the music emerged. Examples would include: “Fantasy on an African-American Spiritual” by Bruce Preuninger and “On an American Spiritual” by David Holsinger. Even chamber ensembles have made use of the African-American spiritual in their arrangements. For example, The Canadian Brass and their rendition of “Just a Closer Walk With Me”.

There is a PBS film available titled “Jubilee Singers: Sacrifice and Glory” which was produced in 2000 by WGBH in Boston and which details the concert tour of the young ex-slaves who introduced the African-American spiritual to the world at the end of the civil war. The web site contains extensive information about the film as well as a teacher’s guide, extended interviews, and further reading. [16]

Copyright 2010 by Pratt Music Co.


[1] William Francis Allen, Charles Pickard Ware and Lucy McKim Garrison, Slave Songs of The United States (New York: A. Simpson, 1867).

[2] Alec Robertson, Dvorak (London: J. M. Dent & Sons, 1947), 170.

[3] Artsong Update, 2006, “Anton Dvorák, Harry T. Burleigh And The Origin Of African-American Art Song,” http://www.artsongupdate.org/Articles/DvorakBurleigh&ArtSong.htm. (accessed October 14, 2006).

[4] negrospirituals.com, “Songs,” Official Site Of Negro Spirituals, 2006 http://www.negrospirituals.com/song.htm. (accessed October 14, 2006).

[5] negrospirituals.com, “I Stood On The River Of Jordan,” Official Site Of Negro Spirituals, 2006, http://www.negrospirituals.com/news-song/i_stood_on_the_river_of_jordan.htm. (accessed October 14, 2006).

[6] Regina Dolan, “Chicken Bones: A Journal,” Negro Spirituals and American Culture, April, 1958, http://www.nathanielturner.com/negrospirituals.htm. (accessed October 14, 2006).

[7] Primarily A Cappella, 2006, “Fisk Jubilee Singers,” http://www.singers.com/gospel/fiskjubileesingers.html. (accessed October 14, 2006).

[8] George Pullen Jackson, White Spirituals in the Southern Uplands: The Story of the Fasola Folk, Their Songs, Singings, and “Buckwheat Notes” (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1933).

[9] Samuel P. Bayard, “Prolegomena to a Study of the Principal Melodic Families of British-American Folk Song,” Journal of American Folk Folklore 63 (1950): .

[10] John F. Garst, “Mutual Reinforcement and the Origins of Spirituals,” American Music 4, no. 4 (Winter 1986): .

[11] Henry Edward Krehbiel, Afro-American Folk-Song: a Study in Racial and National Music (: Kessinger Publishing, LLC, 2006).

[12] MENC, “Standard 9: Understanding Music In Relation To History And Culture,” The National Association For Music Education, 2006, http://www.menc.org/guides/patriotic/9c.html. (accessed October 15, 2006).

[13] MENC, “African American History Month,” The National Association For Music Education, 2006, http://www.menc.org/guides/aahistory/AfricanAmericanHistory.html. (accessed October 15, 2006).

[14] Alabama Music Hall Of Fame, 2006, “William L. Dawson,” http://www.alamhof.org/dawsonwl.htm. (accessed October 15, 2006).

[15] Primarily A Cappella, 2006, “The Brazeal Dennard Chorale,” http://www.singers.com/choral/brazealdennard.html. (accessed October 15, 2006).

[16] PBS, “Jubilee Singers: Sacrifice And Glory,” The American Experience, 2006, http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/amex/singers/index.html. (accessed October 15, 2006).


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