The Official Site of the Negro Spirituals, antique Gospel Music


This site is devoted to traditional African American spirituals, and some information is given about the early Gospel songs. The parts of this site are:

History, how the spirituals change is linked to the History of African American

Singers at various periods

Composers during and after the slavery period

Search gives the lyrics of over 200 traditional spirituals

Shop to acquire books and records of spirituals

Before 1865

The tunes and the beats, before 1865

The tunes and the beats of negro spirituals and Gospel songs are highly influenced by the music of their actual cultural environment. It means that their styles are continuously changing.

The very first negro spirituals were inspired by African music even if the tunes were not far from those of hymns. Some of them, which were called “shouts” were accompanied with typical dancing including hand clapping and foot tapping.

regular a worship service, congregations used to stay for a
“ring shout”. It was a survival of primitive African dance.
So, educated ministers and members placed a ban on it. The men
and women arranged themselves in a ring. The music started,
perhaps with a Spiritual, and the ring began to move, at first
slowly, then with quickening pace. The same musical phrase was
repeated over and over for hours. This produced an ecstatic
state. Women screamed and fell. Men, exhausted, dropped out
of the ring

African American religious singing at this time was referred as
a “moan” (or a “groan”). Moaning (or groaning) does not imply pain.
It is a kind of blissful rendition of a song, often mixed with humming
and spontaneous melodic variation.

lyrics before 1865

the early nineteenth century, African Americans were involved in the “Second
Awakening”. They met in camp meetings and sang without any hymnbook. Spontaneous
songs were composed on the spot. They were called “spiritual songs and
the term “sperichil” (spiritual) appeared for the first time in the book
“Slave Songs of The United States” (by Allen, Ware, Garrison, 1867).

negro spirituals are Christian songs, most of them concern what the Bible
says and how to live with the Spirit of God. For example, the “dark days
of bondage” were enlightened by the hope and faith that God will not leave
slaves alone.

the way, African Americans used to sing outside of churches. During slavery
and afterwards, slaves and workers who were working at fields or elsewhere
outdoors, were allowed to sing “work songs”. This was the case, when they
had to coordinate their efforts for hauling a fallen tree or any heavy
load. Even prisoners used to sing “chain gang” songs when they worked
on the road or on some construction project.

some “drivers” also allowed slaves to sing “quiet” songs, if they were
not apparently against slaveholders. Such songs could be sung either by
only one soloist or by several slaves. They were used for expressing personal
feeling and for cheering one another. So, even at work, slaves could sing
“secret messages”. This was the case of negro spirituals, which were sung
at church, in meetings, at work and at home.

meaning of these songs was most often covert. Therefore, only Christian
slaves understood them, and even when ordinary words were used, they reflected
personal relationship between the slave singer and God.

codes of the first negro spirituals are often related with an escape to
a free country. For example, a “home” is a safe place where everyone can
live free. So, a “home” can mean Heaven, but it covertly means a sweet
and free country, a haven for slaves.

ways used by fugitives running to a free country were riding a “chariot
or a “train”.

negro spirituals “The Gospel Train” and “Swing low, sweet chariot” which
directly refer to the Underground Railroad, an informal organization who
helped many slaves to flee.

lyrics of “The Gospel train” are “She is coming… Get onboard… There’s
room for many more…” This is a direct call to go way, by riding a “train”
which stops at “stations”.

“Swing low, sweet chariot” refers to Ripley, a “station” of the Underground
Railroad, where fugitive slaves were welcome. This town is atop a hill,
by Ohio River, which is not easy to cross. So, to reach this place, fugitives
had to wait for help coming from the hill. The words of this spirituals
say, “I looked over Jordan and what did I see/ Coming for to carry me home/
A band of angels coming after me”

is an example of a negro spiritual and its covert meaning:


is a well-known negro spiritual, which has an interesting meaning.

“balm in Gilead” is quoted in the Old Testament, but the lyrics
of this spiritual refer to the New Testament (Jesus, Holy Spirit,
Peter, and Paul). This difference is interesting to comment. In
the Old Testament, the balm of Gilead cannot heal sinners. In the
New Testament, Jesus heals everyone who comes to Him.

in the book of Jeremiah, several verses speak about Gilead. In chapter
22, v. 6 and 13: The Lord says (about the palace of the king of
Judea) “Though you are like Gilead to me, like the summit of Lebanon,
I will surely make you like a desert, like towns inhabited… Woe
to him who builds his palace by unrighteousness, making his countrymen
work for nothing, not paying them for their labour”.

the same book of Jeremiah, chapter 46, v. 2 and 11, “This is the
message (of the Lord) against the army of Pharaoh Neco … Go up to
Gilead and get balm, O Virgin Daughter of Egypt, but you multiply
remedies in vain; here is no healing for you”.

the New Testament, the four Gospels say that Jesus healed many people
whatever their conditions: he can heal the poor. A Christian who
feels the Spirit must share its faith and “preach”, like Peter and

Between 1865 and 1925

lyrics between 1865 and 1925

were sung at churches with an active participation of the congregation
(as it is usual in a Pentecostal church). Their lyrics mainly remain
similar to those of the first negro spirituals.

were often embellished and they were also called either “church songs”
or “jubilees” or “holy roller songs”. But some hymns were changed by African
American and became “Dr Watts”


Dr Isaac WATTS was an English minister who published several books: “Hymns and Spiritual Songs”, in 1707, “The Psalms of David” in 1717. The various Protestant denominations adopted his hymns, which were included in several hymnals, at that time.

reported on the “ecstatic delight” slaves took in singing the psalms
and hymns of Dr Watts.

his book “The Religious Instruction of the Negroes in the United
States” (1842), the White minister Charles Colock Jones recommended
highly some hymns of Dr Watts (“When I Can read My Title Clear”,
etc.). He wrote: “One great advantage in teaching them (slaves)
good psalms and hymns, is that they are thereby induced to lay aside
the extravagant and nonsensical chants, and catches and hallelujah
songs of their own composing”.

in the early 1800s, Black ministers took seriously the admonition
of Dr Isaac Watts: “Ministers are to cultivate gifts of preaching
and prayer through study and diligence; they ought also to cultivate
the capacity of composing spiritual songs and exercise it along
with the other parts of the worship, preaching and prayer”. So,
homiletic spirituals were created by preachers and taught to the
congregation by them or by deacons.

the post-Civil War period and later, some congregation conducted
services without hymnbooks. A deacon (or precentor) set the pitch
and reminded the words in half-singing half-chanting stentorian
tones. The people called their songs “long-meter hymns (because
the tempo was very low) or “Dr Watts”, even if they have not been
written by this gentleman.

particular feature of this kind of singing was its surging, melismatic
melody, punctuated after each praise by the leader’s intoning of the
next line of the hymn. The male voices doubled the female voices an
octave below and with the thirds and the fifths occurring when individuals
left the melody to sing in a more comfortable range. The quality of
the singing was distinctive for its hard, full-throated and/or nasal
tones with frequent exploitation of falsetto, growling, and moaning.

beats of Dr Watt’s songs were slow, while there are other types of spirituals.
These beats are usually classed in three groups:

the “call and response chant”,

the slow, sustained, long-phrase melody,

and the syncopated, segmented melody,
– “Call and response”

a “call and response chant”, the preacher (leader) sings one verse and
the congregation (chorus) answers him with another verse.

example of such songs is “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot”:


Swing low, sweet chariot
Coming for to carry me home
Swing low, sweet chariot
Coming for to carry me home
If you get there before I do
Coming for to carry me home
Tell all my friends, I’m coming too
Coming for to carry me home

A pionner wagon

Slow and long-phrase song

are some examples of negro spirituals with a slow, long-phase melody.


“I’m Troubled in Mind”, by Spiritual Workshop Paris, click

– “Syncopated melody”

the syncopated, segmented melody, the tempo is usually fast and the rhythm
features a “swing”. This concerns spirituals sung at church, by a group
(not by a soloist). The rhythm of such a spiritual is based on the swinging
of head and body. The swaying of the body marks the regular beat, but
more or less strict in time. The singer takes the fundamental beat, almost
monotonously, with his left hand, while he juggles it with his right hand

by JoAnne Stephenson, acc. Lorna Young-Wright click

1865 and 1925, many tunes were arranged as classical European pieces for
choirs. Some negro spirituals had been sung during worship services.

are negro spirituals sung by a congregation during a worship service.

eye is on the sparrow”, click here

Between 1925 and 1985

The lyrics
between 1925 and 1985

traditional negro spirituals continued to be sung, new Gospel songs were
created. The lyrics of these new songs dealt with praising the Lord, with
personal improvement and with brotherly community life. Many of them were
inspired by social problems: segregation, lack of love, drugs, etc.

the struggle for Civil Rights, in the 1960s, negro spirituals like “We
shall overcome”, “Oh Freedom” and “This Little Light of Mine” used to
be sung.

the words of traditional negro spirituals were slightly changed and adapted
to special events. For example, the words of “Joshua Fought the Battle
of Jericho (and the walls came tumbling down)” were changed into “Marching
’round Selma”.


Marching ’round Selma like Jericho,
Marching ’round Selma like Jericho
For segregation wall must fall
Look at people answering
the Freedom Fighters call
Brown and White American say
must fall
evening freedom’s fighters
me where you’re bound
me where you’re marching
Selma to Montgomery town

this period, some Gospel songs were more secular. They were included in
shows like “Tambourine to Glory” (by Langston Hughes). In the 1970s, mainly
Edwin Hawkins (“Oh Happy Day”) created the “pop-gospel”». This type of
singing needs several instruments to accompany the singers who are often
assembled in choirs.

The music
between 1925 and 1985

1925 and 1985, negro spirituals were sung in local communities. Some scientists,
such as Alan Lomax and John Lomax, collected them, as they were spontaneous

the same time, composers, such as John W. Work, arranged their tunes.
Some of these composers , such
as Jester
, were influenced by the Black Renaissance. This means that
their arrangements were influenced by the European classic music.

1925, artists created Gospel songs, which were either “soul” or “hard
beat”. The number of instruments accompanying singers increased.

After 1985

Some composers, such as Moses
, arranged traditional negro spirituals.

new Gospel songs created after 1985 are of two types. The first type concerns
songs, which are for either worship services or special events in churches.
The second type includes songs, which are for concerts. They are more
or less secular even when they speak of Christian life.

section is organized
by Spiritual Workshop, Paris (France)

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