Spirituals


As we discussed before, spirituals are songs that originated among black slaves. They served as an important means of communication and a way of expressing the slaves' desire for freedom and religious salvation. At the same time, the songs helped to replace their lost African religious traditions and allowed them to maintain a connection to their musical heritage.

Most spirituals included allusions to people, places, or events in the Bible. They frequently referred to Moses, who in the Old Testament led the Jews out of slavery in Egypt.



A REFRAIN is a word, phrase, or group of lines that are repeated at regular intervals in a poem or song. Most spirituals include at least one, and sometimes more than one, refrain. The refrain emphasizes the most important ideas and establishes the rhythm. In a spiritual, the refrain was usually sung by a chorus, with the other words being sung by a soloist. Because the spirituals were passed orally from person to person, the words apart from the refrain often changed. In fact, soloists often improvised, creating new lyrics while singing. since the refrains were frequently repeated, however, they were easy to remember and rarely changed.




Frederick Douglass wrote, "Slaves are generally expected to sing as well as to work. A silent slave is not liked by masters or overseers. "Make a noise, make a noise, " and "bear a hand," are the words usually addressed to the slaves when there is silence amongst them. This may account for the almost constant singing heard in the southern states. There was, generally, more or less singing among the teamsters, as it was one means of letting the overseer know where they were....

The remark is not infrequently made, that slaves are the most contented and happy laborers in the world. They dance and sing, and make all manner of joyful noises, so they do; but it is a great mistake to suppose them happy because they sing. The songs of the slave represent the sorrows rather than the joys, of his heart; and he is relieved by them, only as an aching heart is relieved by its tears."

READ THIS SPIRITUAL

Swing Low, Sweet Chariot

Swing low, sweet chariot
Coming for to carry me home,
Swing low, sweet chariot,
Coming for to carry me home.

I looked over Jordan, and what did I see
Coming for to carry me home?
A band of angels coming after me,
Coming for to carry me home.

Chorus

Sometimes I'm up, and sometimes I'm down,
(Coming for to carry me home)
But still my soul feels heavenly bound.
(Coming for to carry me home)

Chorus

The brightest day that I can say,
(Coming for to carry me home)
When Jesus washed my sins away.
(Coming for to carry me home)

Chorus

If I get there before you do,
(Coming for to carry me home)
I'll cut a hole and pull you through.
(Coming for to carry me home)

Chorus

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)

Chorus

THINK ABOUT IT


If you interpret this spiritual as an expression of the slaves' desire for freedom, what does the chariot represent? What does home represent? What does Jordan, the river that formed the boundary to the promised land of the ancient Israelites, represent? What does the band represent?

If you interpret this spiritual as a religious song, what does the chariot represent? What does home represent? What is the subject of this song?


READ THIS SPIRITUAL

Go Down, Moses

When Israel was in Egypt's land. Let my people go.

Oppressed so hard they could not stand. Let my people go.

CHORUS:

Go down, Moses, 'way down in Egypt's Land.

Tell Old Pharaoh to let my people go.


"Thus spoke the Lord", bold Moses said. Let my people go.

"If not, I'll smite your first born dead." Let my people go.

CHORUS:

The Lord told Moses what to do. Let my people go.

To lead the children of Israel through. Let my people go.

CHORUS:

No more shall they in bondage toil. Let my people go.

Let them come out with Egypt's spoil. Let my people go.

CHORUS:

They journeyed on at his command. Let my people go.

And came at length to Canaan's land. Let my people go.

CHORUS:

We need always weep and mourn. Let my people go.

And wear these slav'ry chains forlorn. Let my people go.

CHORUS:

Oh, let us all from bondage flee. Let my people go.

And let us all in Christ be free. Let my people go.

CHORUS:


THINK ABOUT IT


What does the speaker ask Moses to tell the old Pharaoh?

What REFRAIN is used in this song? Think about how this refrain conveys the main idea.





Last modified: Thursday, 14 June 2012, 4:20 PM