School of Music


Master of Arts in Music Education (MA)


Patricia Campbell


spirituals, spiritual, Negro spiritual, historical analysis, textual analysis, performance paradigm, African-American music, slave songs, arrangers, sorrow songs


History | Music


Traditional Negro spirituals play a key role in America’s music history. Spirituals were initially perpetuated by enslaved Africans in the American South through the oral tradition but today are available in a wide variety of choral, vocal, and instrumental arrangements. The lecture recital that accompanies this document will present seven traditional spirituals of varying themes: “Hold On,” “Witness,” “Deep River,” “Sweet Little Jesus Boy,” “Balm in Gilead,” “Steal Away,” and “Ride On, King Jesus.” Spirituals can be described by three closely interrelated textual categories or descriptors which correspond with their original use and historical context. Songs of sorrow are those songs which relate images or stories of despair or dejection, derived from their initial use as laments. Songs of hope inspire the singer to look toward his or her heavenly destination. These songs often contained symbolic messages used to guide other enslaved people to freedom through the Underground Railroad. Finally, songs of praise contain texts that bring glory to God, either by telling stories found in Scripture or by inviting others to have a relationship with Jesus. While a few songs fall neatly into one category, most spirituals have significant overlap in areas of theme and function. Thus, it is preferable to describe the overarching thematic elements of spirituals, rather than attempting to categorize them or compartmentalize them, as some authors have done. The document that follows will address issues of historical context, textual themes, and performance practice inherent in an analysis of Negro spirituals.