African American Spirituals and the Slavery Connection: When the Song is the Message and More

By Gregory Bourne, Sales Representative

As with many black families whose parents migrated from the West Indies in the late sixties, my sister and I were raised in a Christian household. My mother started hauling us to church when I was six. Dressed in my Sunday best, I wore a pint-sized suit, impossibly shiny black shoes, and the most annoying clip-on-tie. I looked like a cute, black but very angry ventriloquist dummy.

As I got older, I began taking the church and my spirituality more seriously. And it was the gospel music that really caught and held my attention.

The African American spirituals that we sing have a history almost as old as the first African American slaves. The meanings of some of these songs aren’t obvious.

Sometimes a song isn’t just a song.

Ancestry

African American spirituals began in the United States around the 18th century, around the time of slavery. The slaves began to convert to Christianity as they closely identified with the plight of Moses and his people. The African slaves saw themselves in the depictions of slavery in the bible.

Technique

African American spirituals started as a mashup of West African styles and traditional European Christian hymns.

The appropriately named sorrow songs have a slow and deliberate tempo that is intense and almost mournful. One of the best examples of this is “Swing low, sweet chariot.”  The tone is incredibly somber. By contrast, jubilee songs like “Jordon River,” has a more upbeat tempo, typically accompanied by on beat hand clapping and even the occasional foot stomping.

Spirituals were a stark departure from how the traditional hymns were sung by the colonizers. The African American slaves adopted the hymns and made them their own.

Coded

The African American spirituals were originally a way for the African American slaves to express their Christian faith, while also describing the pain of their servitude.

The spirituals also served to allow for covert communication between the slaves; it was music made by African American Slaves for African American Slaves.

The lyrics to the gospel song The Gospel Train: “Get on board little children …There’s room for many more,” was also a veiled reference to The Underground Railroad.

The song Down by the Riverside contained the words, “I’m gonna lay down my heavy load… Down by the riverside.” The song not only spoke about the waters of baptism, but the river being a means of escaping their slave masters.

The African American spirituals were songs of hope for escaping the shackles of sin and the means of escaping their slave masters.

A Final Word

When is a song, more than a just a song?

When it conveys a message that only a few understand, and a freedom that everyone is owed.