The Negro Spiritual Inc.

Georgia Spiritual Ensemble
Important Artists
Event Calendar

Dr. Oral Moses

Buy CDs




Other Articles


A frenzied "shout" apparently bursting forth at the climax of a rousing sermon in a primitive church. It was also a rhythmic testimony that must continue in fever heat until the final note. (Eva Jessye)


"After the sermon they formed a ring, and with coats off sung, clapped their hands and stomped their feet in a most ridiculous and heathenish way. I requested the pastor to go and stop their dancing. At his request, they stopped their dancing and clapping of hands, but remained singing and rocking their bodies to and fro. This they did for about fifteen minutes."


"At a given signal of the leader, the men will take off their jackets, hang up their hats, and tie up their heads with handkerchiefs; the women will tighten their turbans, and the company will then form a circle around the singer, and jump and bawl to their heart's content....." (Pictures of Slavery, p. 383.) - John Dixon Long

"heathenish! quite heathenish! ....Did you ever see a shout....?

I responded in the negative, and inquired what it was.

"Oh, a dance of negro men and women to the accompaniment of their own voices. It's of no particular figure, and they sing to no particular tune improvising both at pleasure, and keepin' it up for an hour together. I'll defy you to look at it without thinking of Ashantee or Dahomey; it's so suggestive of aboriginal Africa."

I had an opportunity, subsequently, of witnessing the performance in question, and can indorse the lazy gentlemen's assertion.


The most peculiar and interesting of their customs is the "shout," an excellent description of which we are permitted to copy from the

N. Y. Nation of May 30, 1867:

The greatest peculiarities are, however, found in the "shouting tunes," as, indeed, the "shout' is the most peculiar institution of these people.

It is a kind of shuffling dance, accompanied by a measured movement of the arms and clapping of the hands, and a sort of ducking motion of the body at the turns of the tune, performed by a line of persons moving about in a circle. I am told that they sometimes move backward, but I do not think I ever saw this. The singing is usually done by a sort of choir of bystanders. One leading singer carries on the song, stringing verse after verse of the most absurd stuff, which he often makes up as he goes along. The others "base" him, as it is called; that is, sing the chorus or refrain. The "base" almost always overlaps the tune, striking in before the line is finished, when the singer at once stops without completing the line, taking up his part again in his time before the base is quite through. The whole is accompanied by clapping hands. The tunes is often preceded by an introduction, in chanting style, during which the "shouters" (that is, the dancers, not the singers) move quickly around in the circle, not beginning the "shout" proper until the turn in the tune.

"I know member, know Lord,

I know I yedde [hear] de bell da ring.

[Repeated several times.]

I want to go to meetin' - [Base] Bell da ring.

I want to go to 'ciety

De heaven-bell a-heaven-bell,

De road so stormy (boggy),

Brudder, hain't you a member?"

"Turn, sinner, turn O!" (the most beautiful and dramatic of all the shouts), "O Lord, de rock o' jubilee," and "Archangel open de door."

Sometimes the whole tune is more elaborate, as in the following, perhaps the finest of all:

"I can't stay behind my Lord,

I can't stay behind.

There's room enough-{Base}Room enough,

Room enough in heaven for you (repeated),

I can't stay behind.

I binny all aroun'-I binny all aroun',

My fader call-An' I mus' go.

O stoback member - stoback member."

"Stoback" is "shout backwards."

Most of the music of these people has a quite civilized sound, and much f it might no doubt be traced to tunes which they have heard from the whites, and transformed for their own use. They have so much native musical capacity that it is a real obstacle to their learning tunes by heart - as soon as they have one partly learned, they begin to sing it and soon change it into something quite different. At any rate, there is no doubt that their music as a whole has been influenced by their civilization, and is rather European than African in it's character. It is probable, however, that the "shout" is the direct descendant of some African dance, as the Romaika is of the Pyrrhic; and I have thought that in a few tunes I observed a peculiar character that might point to an African origin. For instance, there is a strange, wild, minor "shout:"

Comparatively few of the tunes, however, are minor some of them are even merry, and the prevailing character is that of sweetness and cheerfulness.

I append two of the most peculiar and characteristic of their "shouts"

"Pray a little longer - [Base] O Lord - Yes, my Lord.

Pray true believer.

Jericho da worry me,

Jericho - Jericho.

Went to de meeting,

Met brudder Haeler [Hercules]

Wha' d' ye tink' e tell me?

Tell me for to turn back

Patrol around me.

Tank god he no ketch me."

The two last lines point to the days of slavery. The other song has all incomprehensible introduction, followed by a very distinct allusion to the most prevalent form of illness - "pain in head an' feber."

"Way my brudder, better true belieb,

Better true be long time (-et) other crosses

Way my sister, better true belief,

An' 'e get up to heaben at las',

My body rock 'long feber [Base] O, wid a pain in 'e head.

I wish I bin to de kingdom,

To set along side o' my Lord."



But the benches are pushed back to the wall when the formal meeting is over, and old and young, men and women, sprucely-dressed young men, grotesquely half-clad field-hands-the women generally with gay handkerchiefs twisted about their heads and with short skirts-boys with tattered shirts and men's trousers, young girls bare-footed, all stand up in the middle of the floor, and when the 'sperichil' is struck up, begin first walking and by-and-by shuffling round, one after the other, in a ring. The foot is hardly taken from he floor, and the progression is mainly due to a jerking, hitching motion, which agitates the entire shouter, and soon brings out streams of perspiration. Sometimes they dance silently, sometimes as they shuffle they sing the chorus of the spiritual, and sometimes the song itself is also sung by the dancers. But frequently a band, composed or some of the best singers and the tired shouters, stand at the side of the room to 'base' the others, singing the body of the song and clapping their hands together or on the kneed. Song and dance are alike extremely energetic, and often, when the shout lasts into the middle of the night, the monotonous thud, thud of the feet prevents sleep within half a mile of the praise-house."

In the form here described, the "shout' is probably confined to South Carolina and the States south of it.

"In its customary form, the ring shout consists of a circle of people moving single file (usually counter-clockwise) around a central point, to the accompaniment of singing, stamping, and heel clicking. In some instances, the participants tap (in effect, drum) on the floor rhythmically with sticks to produce percussion effects. The steps are akin to a shuffle, with free foot movement prohibited, and little versatility permitted. Sometimes, the clearly defined single file circle gives way to a sort of amorphous crowd moving around a central point. The tempo may build up gradually, singing interspersed with exclamations characteristic of some other Negro church services, until it reaches a tense peak close to an ecstatic breaking point. At the high point of the excitement, such exclamations as "Oh Lord!" and "Yes, Lord!' turn into nonsense sounds and cries; seemingly wild emotional responses, they nevertheless are related to the music as a whole, and no notation which omits them can give a fair picture of what is heard.

The tension generated in the course of the shout has certain approved outlets, such as ecstatic seizures or possessions, but the feet are required to be kept under control. A person who violates this commonly understood proscription by "crossing his feet" - that is to say, by "dancing" -- is admonished or evicted from the service.

One elderly man described his own unfortunate experience this way: "Well, don't you know, them folks all shouting, rockin', and reelin', and me in the middle; and I ask you if it wasn't the Holy

Ghost that come into me, who was it? Those feet of mine wouldn't stay on the ground in no manner, they jumped around and crossed over, back and forth, and the next thing I know they turned me out of the church."

The circular movement, shuffling steps, and stamping conform to African traditions of supplication, while by definition this activity is not recognized as a "dance." However, if one violates the compromise by going too far, he has committed an irreverent act.

While this is dance, this is not dance brought into religious activity from the secular world.

"Gonna shout all over God's heaven"

"Run Old Jeremiah" ---- One of the most famous shouts

Courlander, Harold: Negro Folk Music, U.S.A.



Copyright © Oral Moses. Web Design by Andrew Doss