SPIRITUAL: A SOURCE FOR MODERN GOSPEL
for much of the lyric content used in today's Black American
gospel music is the vast collection of African-American
spirituals of the nineteenth century. For more than a century,
these nineteenth century African-American religious songs
served as a dominant medium through which Black Americans
expressed the discontentment and sadness of their hostile
environment. Strong evidence of this dissatisfaction can
be observed in many of these spirituals like , "Nobody
Knows de Trouble I see." Additional examples of this
discontentment are expressed in such spirituals as, "Didn't
My Lord Deliver Daniel," where blacks communicated
directly with a God whom they believed would deliver them
from the evils of slavery and "I'm Going to Live With
Jesus," where they tried to assuage their hardships
and grasp some hope of a prominent future.
rich oral tradition of religious songs had its earliest
beginnings in the early church, camp meetings, and the invisible
churches. The following is a detailed report written by
a member of a deputation from the congregational Union of
England and Wales:
building, called a church, is without the town,
placed in a hollow, so as to be out of sight....
is a poor log house, built by the hands of Negroes,
so placed as to show that they must worship by
It is, perhaps 20 by 25; with boarding and
breast-high, run around three sides, so as to
galleries. To this is added a lean-to, to take the overplus....
place was quite full, the women and men were arranged on
law of the state, no coloured persons are permitted to assemble
for worship, unless a white person be present and preside....at
this time, two whites and two blacks were in the pulpit.
One of the blacks......gave out Dr. Watt's beautiful Psalm,
"show pity, Lord; oh Lord, forgive," etc. They
all rose immediately. They have no books, for they could
not read; but it was printed on their memory, and they sang
it off with freedom and feeling. There is a much melody
in their voices; and when they enjoy a hymn, there is a
raised _expression of the face, and an undulating motion
of the body, keeping time with the music, which is very
of these means helped to firmly establish the spirituals'
oral tradition, which remained strong into the twentieth
century. Certainly the spiritual by no means became passé.
Its means of composition, its performance practices and
its sociological significance are a vital part of black
life and are easily recognizable through lyrics used in
gospel songs. Also, such groups as the Fisk Jubilee Singers
helped to make permanent the spiritual as an art form. Some
writers say that, "the manner in which such singers
presented the Antebellum songs of faith was a far cry from
their original rendering in the praised houses and cotton
fields." But I feel that "the singing of these
songs is all their own, and....no line or phrase was introduced
that did not receive full endorsement from the singers.
is the essence of the spiritual. It was in words, set to
music, that the slave was able to express his dissatisfaction
with his station in life, vent his longing desire to live
as a free man and humbly seek peace and salvation from God.
songs of the slave represent the sorrows, rather than the
joys, of his heart; and he is relieved by them, only as
an aching is relieved by its tears. Sorrow and desolation
have their songs, as well as joy and peace. Slaves sing
to express their true feelings of the degradation and torture
they had to suffer during this horrific life experience.
one observer wrote:
sang so that it was a pleasure to hear; with all their souls
with all their bodies in unison; for their bodies wagged,
heads nodded, their feet stomped, their knees shook, their
hands beat time to the tune and the words which they sang
One must see these people singing if one is rightly to understand
seen their imitators,....who travel about the country painted
up as negroes
singing negro songs in the negro manner, and with gestures,
as it is said;
nothing can be more radically unlike, for the most essential
part of the resemblance fails....namely, the life."
bold and powerful statements, in my estimation, speak directly
to the religious and social ontents of the lives of the
music like the spiritual is also firmly grounded by its
lyrics. Charles Albert Tindley (1856-1933), the progenitor
of gospel music, in moving away from the formula established
by white hymn composers, "concentrated on
text that gave attention to such important concerns of Black
Christians as worldly sorrows, blessings, and woes, as well
as the joys of the after-life. He also
allowed space for the inevitable improvisation of text,
melody, harmony, and rhythm so characteristic of Black American
folk and popular music."
A. Dorsey (1899-1993) was greatly influenced by C.A. Tindley
and in defense of his bluesy songs, which he composed in
a similar style as Tindley, he stated, "The message
is not in the music but in the words of the song. It matters
not what kind of music or what kind of movement it has,
if the words are Jesus, Heaven, Faith and Life then you
have a song with which God is pleased regardless to what
critics and some church folk say."
view of such strong statements in support of lyric content,
it is understandable that gospel singers started a revival
of interest in the spirituals during both World War II and
the Martin Luther King, Jr. era. Both periods represent
times of severe hardships and struggles for Black Americans.
In the midst of these impossible struggles, the gospel song
like the spirituals during slavery was their source of strength
returning to the spirituals and plantation songs, these
twentieth century gospel singers were provided words which
were strong in their spiritual convictions, carried the
"Good News," and also carried a message of the
social pressures and frustrations which had burdened Black
Americans since slavery. Such a return serves to connect
and preserve an oral tradition that has been passed down
from the earliest existence of the spiritual and continued
on through the 1940's.
spiritual continued to be nurtured in the folk church, as
the early developmental stages of the gospel songs began
to appear. Black American composers such as Harry Thacker
Burleigh, R. Nathaniel Dett and Hall Johnson became known
for their arrangements of spirituals for the concert stage.
"As an arranger of spirituals for solo voice, Burleigh
made a unique contribution to the history of American music.
His publication, Jubilee Songs of the United States of America,
1916, made available to concert singers for the first
time Negro spirituals set in the manner of art songs."
By the 1940s, gospel became a more popular and preferred
style of religious song for Black Americans
and the spiritual became a significant source for its text.
ways can be cited which suggest how the lyric content in
gospel music borrows from spirituals:
lyrics relate to the spiritual, which exemplify the personal.
lyrics relate to spirituals of which only the chorus is
lyrics relate to spirituals in which only an incipit (the
beginning phrase) is borrowed.
lyrics relate to spirituals in which part of an inner verse
lyrics relate to spirituals in which new words have been
substituted for the original words.
WHOSE TEXTS HAVE BEEN BORROWED AS RESOURCES FOR MODERN GOSPEL
is a Rock" why my Jesus is a rock in a weary land
My soul is a witness for my Lord
want to be Ready" Walk in Jerusalem
News, de Chariot's comn' Good News the Chariot's coming
Give Way Jordan" Get away Jordan
Redeemed" Oh redeemed, I'm washed in the blood
Stand the Storm" Oh! Stand the storm it won't be long
Me Jesus" Fix me Jesus, fix me right
Lord will Provide" The Lord will Provide
Here" Is there anybody here?
shall not be moved" I shall not be moved
and Ashes" He arose, he arose from the Dead
are out on the Ocean Sailing"
don't feel no-ways Tired"
the Old Ship of Zion"
Low, Sweet Chariot"
de Heaven Light Shine"
I am gone, gone, gone"
o'dese Moaning's" Look away into Heaven
Moses smote the Water"
dat Great Gettin' up Mornin'"
Great Camp Meeting in the Promise Lan'"
Ready When He Comes Again"
Mary, don't you Weep"
led My Mother all the Way"
Blood has Signed My Name"
Hush, the Angels Calling Me'
is a Balm in Gilead"