The Musical Theology of Negro Spirituals

Everett Historical / Shutterstock
“Nobody knows the trouble I see, nobody knows my sorrow.”

Militant abolitionist Thomas W. Higginson was the commander of the First South Carolina Volunteers, the first Union regiment made up of freed slaves. In his camps, his soldiers would break out into song, which Higginson wrote down and published in the Atlantic Monthly.

“These quaint religious songs were to the men more than a source of relaxation, they were a stimulus to courage and a tie to heaven,” he wrote.

“By these they could sing themselves, as had their fathers before them, out of the contemplation of their own low estate, into the sublime scenery of the Apocalypse. I remember that this minor-keyed pathos used to seem to me almost too sad to dwell upon, while slavery seemed destined to last for generations; but now that their patience has had its perfect work, history cannot afford to lose this portion of its record.”

North to Canaan

Though Higginson and others noted that almost without exception, “all had a religious motive,” spirituals were part of an elaborate system of secrecy. Sometimes these messages announced a secret meeting: “There’s a great camp-meeting in the Promised Land.”

Others may have signaled an impending escape: “Steal away to Jesus! I ain’t got long to stay here!” Still others were used to mock their masters and to expose their religious hypocrisy: “Ev’rybody talkin’ ’bout heav’n ain’t goin’ there.”

“A keen observer might have detected in our repeated singing of ‘O Canaan, sweet Canaan, I am bound for the land of Canaan,’ something more than a hope of reaching heaven,” wrote Frederick Douglass. “We meant to reach the North, and the North was our Canaan.”

As one young boy, listening with Higginson to “De Lord Will Call Us Home,” explained, “Day tink de Lord mean for say de Yankees.”

But spirituals, though they had their hidden meaning, were primarily religious in nature, and were a key part of the worship experience of the slaves. On Sundays and other worship times, they became the basis of the ring shout:

“When the ‘sperichil’ is struck up, [all present] begin first walking and by-and-by shuffling round, one after the other, in a ring. … Sometimes they dance silently, sometimes as they shuffle they sing the chorus of the spiritual, and sometimes the song itself is also sung by the dancers. But more frequently a band … of singers … ‘base’ the others, singing the body of the song and clapping their hands together or on the knees.”

But such songs weren’t limited to the “praise-house”; they also served an important function in the work environment. Whether house slaves or field hands, they were expected to put in long hours of back-breaking work, with a minimal amount of food and rest.

In order to keep up with this pace, the slaves, often sang as they worked. As one ex-slave reflected, “We would pick cotton and sing, pick and sing all day.”

Click here to read more.

SOURCE: Christianity Today
Yolanda Y. Smith