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Spiritual (music)

A spiritual is a African American song, usually with a Christian religious text. Originally monophonic and a cappella, these songs are antecedents of the blues.

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Historical background

Spirituals are primarily expressions of religious faith, originated by African slaves in the United States. Slavery was introduced into the European colonies in 1619, and slaves largely replaced indentured servants as an economic labor force during the 17th century. This labor force would remain in bondage for the entire 18th century and much of the 19th century. They were set free with the ratification of the Thirteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution by United States Secretary of State William Henry Seward on December 18, 1865. The Amendment had been suggested on January 31, 1865, and was ratified by 27 of the then 36 states.

Songs included in the spiritual genre sometimes contained hidden messages of a slaveowner’s unexpected return, of rebellion, or escape. "Follow the Drinking Gourd," for example, contained a coded map to the Underground Railroad, instructing escapees to follow the Big Dipper (the "drinking gourd.") "Wade in the Water" was another such song that combined religious imagery and codified instructions for potential runaways.

Spirituals sometimes provided comfort and eased the boredom of daily tasks. Above all, they were an expression of spiritual devotion and a yearning for freedom from bondage. One of the best known spirituals is Swing Low, Sweet Chariot:

(Refrain)
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.
(Refrain)
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.
(Refrain)
I’m sometimes up and sometimes down,
Coming for to carry me home,
But still my soul feels heavenly bound,
Coming for to carry me home.
(Refrain)
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.
(Refrain)
 – Traditional

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 Antonín Dvořák to head her conservatory; Dvořák 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 Dvořák's protegé, during which time he sang the traditional spirituals for Dvořák. With Dvořák'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."

Samples

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