Humans from the coast of West Africa arrived to the New World as slaves. Stripped of everything familiar, they brought with them their traditional ways of using music to record historic events, expressions, and to accompany rituals. While toiling in the tobacco fields of Virginia, slaves were not permitted to speak to each other. So, they resorted to their African tradition. They sang! Today, these lyrics have crossed barriers and are sung in many churches across America as spirituals. However, such songs as Wade in the Water, Swing Low, Sweet Chariot, and Follow the Drinking Gourd, were once used as an important tool of survival by the slaves of the antebellum era. The content of many Negro spirituals consisted of a religious theme. However, Negro spirituals were not intended to be religious. The primary purpose of Negro spirituals was to mislead an overseer or the plantation owner.
Slaves were not allowed to have a political voice, but singing was permitted. Slaves were free to sing while working in the fields, or while performing various duties about the plantation. White Southerners viewed songs with biblical themes as non-threatening. A spiritual-singing slave was perceived as joyous and content. However, the seemingly joyous" music of the Negro slave was that of an unhappy people" (Dubois). Spirituals were used as a political tool for slaves to voice their contempt, or stand up to an irate master by mumbling his feelings through song. mislead an overseer or plantation owner. Messages were secretly concealed in every verse! Spirituals were not written, but transferred from slave to slave orally. In 1871, a group of students from Fisk University in Nashville, Tennessee, formed a choir called the Jubilee Singers. Fisk was an University designed to educate former slaves. This choir of Freedmen performed concerts to raise money for their school. The Jubilee singers helped to preserve the songs of the American slaves. Slaves were not allowed the opportunity of literacy, so spirituals were not written. This resulted in many forgotten lyrics. escaping slaves during the antebellum era of the South.
Call and Response is a style of singing that was utilized by slaves under the watchful eye of an overseer. The West African culture traditionally used this style of singing in public gatherings and religious rituals (Wikipedia). A slave who wished to communicate with another would call out his thoughts or feelings using a song. In return, another would respond with a song. Hence, from an uprooted- African's need to communicate, a genre of music was created. Authentic spirituals were originally called Shouts. As Shouts were transferred from the field to the Prayer House, they were accompanied with characteristics of African culture. Hand-clapping, foot-stomping, hypnotic dancing, and euphoric cries went along with syncopated singing. Negro spirituals were sung with a harmony of multiple rhythms and repeating verses (Johnson). Africans worshipped a supreme being and many deities of a lower status. The use of Drums was essential in religious rituals. Once the African captives arrived on American soil, their traditional rituals and use of drums were banned plantation owners' were suspicious of the patterned beats of drums. Church services were limited to slaves. Many White Southerners feared that slaves may interpret the teaching of Jesus as being in favor of equality. Those who allowed their slaves the opportunity to attend church services did so in hopes that Christian slaves would be less likely to revolt (Spartacus educational). However, the religion of the slaves was important to them. They were willing to risk the sting of the whip to steal away to clandestine meetings. Hid away by the cover of night, the slaves would sing spirituals while performing their African rituals. Spirituals, such as Steal Away, were often used to announce such meetings. Nat Turner, a slave...
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