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A source 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.

This 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:

: The building, called a church, is without the town,

and placed in a hollow, so as to be out of sight....

It is a poor log house, built by the hands of Negroes,

and so placed as to show that they must worship by

stealth. It is, perhaps 20 by 25; with boarding and

rails breast-high, run around three sides, so as to

form galleries. To this is added a lean-to, to take the overplus....

The place was quite full, the women and men were arranged on

opposite sides.......

By the law of the state, no coloured persons are permitted to assemble for worship, unless a white person be present and 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 touching......"

All 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, line or phrase was introduced that did not receive full endorsement from the singers.

Text 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.

"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 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.

As one observer wrote:

"They sang so that it was a pleasure to hear; with all their souls

and with all their bodies in unison; for their bodies wagged,

their heads nodded, their feet stomped, their knees shook, their elbows and

their hands beat time to the tune and the words which they sang with evident

delight. One must see these people singing if one is rightly to understand

their life.

I have seen their imitators,....who travel about the country painted up as negroes

and singing negro songs in the negro manner, and with gestures, as it is said;

but nothing can be more radically unlike, for the most essential part of the resemblance fails....namely, the life."

Such bold and powerful statements, in my estimation, speak directly to the religious and social ontents of the lives of the slaves.

Gospel 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."

Thomas 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."

In 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 and encouragement.

By 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.

The 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.

Several ways can be cited which suggest how the lyric content in gospel music borrows from spirituals:

1. Gospel lyrics relate to the spiritual, which exemplify the personal.

2. Gospel lyrics relate to spirituals of which only the chorus is borrowed.

3. Gospel lyrics relate to spirituals in which only an incipit (the beginning phrase) is borrowed.

4. Gospel lyrics relate to spirituals in which part of an inner verse is used.

5. Gospel lyrics relate to spirituals in which new words have been substituted for the original words.


"Jesus is a Rock" why my Jesus is a rock in a weary land

"Witness" My soul is a witness for my Lord

"I want to be Ready" Walk in Jerusalem

"Good News, de Chariot's comn' Good News the Chariot's coming

"Oh, Give Way Jordan" Get away Jordan

"O Redeemed" Oh redeemed, I'm washed in the blood

"We'll Stand the Storm" Oh! Stand the storm it won't be long

"Fix Me Jesus" Fix me Jesus, fix me right

"The Lord will Provide" The Lord will Provide

"Anybody Here" Is there anybody here?

"I shall not be moved" I shall not be moved

"Dust and Ashes" He arose, he arose from the Dead

"We are out on the Ocean Sailing"

"I don't feel no-ways Tired"

"Tis the Old Ship of Zion"

"Swing Low, Sweet Chariot"

"Glory, glory Hallelujah"

"Let de Heaven Light Shine"

"When I am gone, gone, gone"

"Some o'dese Moaning's" Look away into Heaven

"Roll Jordon, Roll"

"When Moses smote the Water"


:Steal Away"

"In dat Great Gettin' up Mornin'"

"A Great Camp Meeting in the Promise Lan'"

L Lord, Remember Me"

"Be Ready When He Comes Again"

"O Mary, don't you Weep"

"He led My Mother all the Way"

"The Blood has Signed My Name"

"Hush, Hush, the Angels Calling Me'

"Didn't it Rain?"

"There is a Balm in Gilead"

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