African American religious music is the foundation of all contemporary forms of so called "black music." African American religious music has been a fundamental part of the black experience in this country. This common staple of the African American experience can be traced back to the cruel system of slavery. It then evolved into what we refer to today as gospel music. The goal of this paper is to answer three main questions. What are the origins of African American religious music? How did this musical expression develop into a secular form of music? What is the future of African American religious music? These questions will be answered through factual research of African American traditions, artists, and various other sources.
The origins of African American religious music are directly linked to the Negro spirituals of enslaved Africans. One cannot research religious music of blacks in this country without first exploring these spirituals. The spirituals were part of a religious expression that enslaved people used to transcend the narrow limits and dehumanizing effects of slavery. It was through the performance of the spirituals that the individual and the community experienced their God, a God who affirmed their humanity in ways whites did not and a God who could set them free both spiritually and physically. These "sacred songs" were also used as secret communication. That is not to say that all spirituals functioned as coded protest songs or as some sort of secret language. The structure of the spirituals and the way in which they were created and performed allowed for flexibility in their function and meaning.
The primary function of the Negro spirituals was to serve as communal song in a religious gathering, performed in a call and response pattern reminiscent of West African traditional religious practices. During these ceremonies, one person would begin to create a song by singing about his or her own sorrow or joy. That individual experience was brought to the community and through the call and response structure of the singing, that individual's sorrow or joy became the sorrow or joy of the community. In this way, the spiritual became truly affirming, for it provided communal support for individual experiences. Slaves used the characters of the bible, particularly the Old Testament, to tell their stories. Jesus was called upon to help the individual find God, who would "set them free on the inside." The spirituals ultimately tell the story of a spiritual journey toward spiritual freedom. A spiritual journey dominates these songs, but the concern for physical freedom is there as well. The most pervasive image in the spirituals is that of the chosen people for the slaves believed that they had been chosen by God just as the Israelites had. They also believed that they understood better than anyone what freedom truly meant in both a spiritual and physical sense. The Old Testament characters that the slaves referred to in their songs experienced deliverance by God. The slaves believed that the same God that had granted them spiritual freedom would someday loose the chains of slavery. The wonderful flexibility of the spirituals allowed for that double meaning of freedom. For example, Frederick Douglass claimed that the line" I am bound for Canaan" in one of the songs he frequently sang meant that he was going North, not just that he would experience the freedom of the promised land in a spiritual sense. The flexibility and multiplicity of meanings also allowed for slaves to use these sacred songs as secret communication. Some songs, such as "Steal Away to Jesus," were used to call a secret meeting where the people could worship without the supervision of the whites. Other songs, such as "Wade in the Water" served as coded directions for runaway slaves. With the eventual emancipation of the slaves, religious music of African Americans became prominently found in churches...
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