The Spiritual

THE 1790 CENSUS of the United States reported more than 750,000 blacks. The musical expressions of the majority of these blacks—those enslaved in the South—greatly influenced American religious and secular musical forms.

Although some Christians attempted to use the Bible to justify the institution of slavery, the majority of African-Americans embraced Christianity. As a result, they created and performed songs, particularly the spiritual, that had a lasting influence on Christian worship.

Slaves held informal, possibly secret, prayer meetings. Recalled former slave Wash Wilson: “Sometimes us sing and pray all night.” The spirituals sung in these meetings drew from hymns, the Bible, and African styles of singing. Most slaves could not read, so the spirituals helped to teach them the Bible.

Field Hollers

The three primary musical forms produced by the enslaved during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries were field hollers, work songs, and spirituals.

Slaves were not allowed to talk to one another while working in the field. But singing, such as the work song or field holler, was permitted. The slaves therefore establishd a communication network that was unintelligible to their white overseers.

It is difficult to say exactly how these hollers sounded. They probably come close to sounding like the field hollers recorded by folklorists, such as John Lomax, in the early- to mid-1900s. These more-recent recordings suggest that field hollers were calls for water, food, or assistance. Sometimes field hollers let others know where the caller was working, or simply were cries of loneliness, sorrow, and occasionally, even joy.

Work Songs

Singing accompanied all kinds of work among the slaves. It helped alleviate the monotony of labor and keep the field hands energized by rhythmically synchronizing their movements. “Work songs” addressed various subjects, depending on the kind of work being performed. Consider the following corn song:

Hooray, hooray, ho! 
Roun’ de corn, Sally! 
Hooray for all de lubly ladies! 
Roun’de corn, Sally! 
Hooray, hooray, ho! 
Roun’ de corn, Sally! 
Hooray for all de lubly ladies! 
Roun’de corn, Sally! 

Dis lub’s er thing dat’s sure to hab you, 
Roun’de corn, Sally! 
He hole you tight, when he grab you, 
Roun’de corn, Sally! 
Un ole un ugly, young un pritty, 
Roun’ de corn, Sally! 
You needen try when once he git you, 
Roun’de corn, Sally!

Other work songs were sung by individuals who sang not for the purpose of synchronizing their movements, but for their own entertainment and expression. Work songs reflected the thoughts and moods of those who sang all day long, from “can’t-see-morning to can’t-see-night.”


The religious counterpart to the work song was the spiritual. The first reference to spirituals as a distinctive genre appeared early in the nineteenth century. Many scholars believe, however, that the spiritual originated in the late eighteenth century.

It is not known precisely when the term spiritual began to be applied to black religious folksongs. Since the editors of Slave Songs of the United States (1867) did not define the term in their compilation, it must have been in common use by 1860.

Improvisation was crucial in the creation of a spiritual. The spiritual was most likely fashioned by combining verses from the Bible and hymns with portions of sermons and prayers given during the worship of the enslaved. Such religious expressions were embellished, and repetitive refrains were added.

The spiritual “My Lord, What a Morning!” for example, was essentially (re)created from the hymn “Behold the Awful Trumpet Sounds.” Here is the spiritual:

My Lord, what a morning, 
My Lord, what a morning, 
My Lord, what a morning 
When the stars begin to fall. 
You’ll hear the trumpet sound, 
To wake the nations underground, 
Looking to my God’s right hand, 
When the starts begin to fall.

Two stanzas from the original hymn, first published in Richard Allen’s 1801 hymnal, show where the slave composer received his inspiration:

Behold the awful trumpet sounds, 
The sleeping dead to raise, 
And calls the nations underground: 
O how the saints will praise! . . . 
The falling stars their orbits leave, 
The sun in darkness hide: 
The elements asunder cleave, 
The moon turn’d into blood! . . .

First African—American Hymnal

Richard Allen, founding bishop of the African Methodist Episcopal Church, published a hymnal for the congregation he established in 1794. Allen’s hymnal, A Collection of Spiritual Songs and Hymns Selected from Various Authors by Richard Allen, African Minister, was printed in 1801. It consists of fifty-four hymn texts (without tunes) drawn chiefly from the collections of Isaac Watts, Charles Wesley, John Wesley, and other writers favored by the Methodists of the period.

Allen’s Collection stands as the first anthology of hymns collected for use by a black congregation. It was also the first hymnal to employ wandering refrains—verses or short choruses attached at random to orthodox hymn stanzas.

The practice of wandering refrains is a form of improvisation. Since improvisation was also inherent in the spirituals, here is evidence that connects the musical tastes of blacks who were enslaved and those, such as Allen and his Philadelphia congregation, who were free.

African-American field hollers, work songs, and spirituals blended African and European-American musical traditions. The spiritual in particular was influenced by the European-American religious traditions—the burgeoning hymns of the 1700s and 1800s. CH

By Angela M. S. Nelson

[Christian History originally published this article in Christian History Issue #31 in 1991]

Angela M. S. Nelson is a doctoral candidate in American culture at Bowling Green (Ohio) State University.
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