A spiritual is a African-American song with a religious text. Originally monophonic and a cappella, these songs are antecedents of the blues. Spirituals were songs sung by enslaved people to express their religion. They were first sung by slaves on Southern plantations as work songs, sometimes with hidden messages of a slave owner�s unexpected return, rebellion or escape.
Singing spirituals sometimes provided comfort for pain, and eased the boredom of daily tasks. Above all, they are an expression of the inner freedom of human beings whose bodies were in bondage. A well known example of a spiritual is Swing Low, Sweet Chariot.
The evolution of the spiritual
With the advent of Harry Burleigh (1866-1949), the spiritual began to develop into a sophisticated art form. Burleigh attended the conservatory in New York City that was founded by Jeannette Thurber. Seeking to attract a prestigious faculty, Thurber had asked Czech composer Anton�n Dvoř�k to head her conservatory; Dvoř�k agreed to do so, on the condition that talented Native American or African American composers be allowed to attend without paying tuition. Burleigh was accepted as a student, and became Dvoř�k's protege, during which time he sang the traditional spirituals for Dvoř�k. With Dvoř�k's encouragement, Burleigh began to compose classical song and choral arrangements of spirituals, which were later made famous by artists such as the Fisk Jubilee Singers, Marian Anderson, Robert McFerrin Sr., and William Warfield. Another great composer of classical settings of spirituals was Hall Johnson (1887-1970).
Some examples of spirituals which were set in this way are "Ride On King Jesus," "Ain't Got Time to Die," and "Hold On."
- Listen to "Pharoah's Army Got Drowned," artists unknown (765 KB)
- Download recording of "My Good Lord Done Been Here" spiritual song from the Library of Congress' John and Ruby Lomax 1939 Southern States Recording Trip; performed by Aunt Florida Hampton on May 29, 1939 at the home of Mr. and Mrs. P.W. Tartt in Livingston, Alabama
- Download recording - "Roll the Old Chariot Along" spiritual and sea shanty from the Library of Congress' Gordon Collection; performed by unknown persons in the Bay Area of California in the early 1920s
- Download recording - "Deep Down in My Heart" - Spiritual from the Library of Congress' Gordon Collection; performed by W. M. Givens in Darien, Georgia on about March 19, 1926