AMERICAN NEGRO SPIRITUALS
No other music has shaped and influenced the very fabric of American life more than Spirituals. From their humble roots in the eighteenth century, this glorious music has evolved into American classical music, while being the catalyst for numerous other American secular and sacred music styles.
The early black settlers were indentured servants, free blacks and slaves who had come mainly from the west coast countries on the continent of Africa. In spite of unfathomable circumstances, slaves managed to keep their spirits up by creating music. At first they made
vocal sounds with body movements which were called "cries and hollers," to express their yearning for freedom. Later, they used the Bible to learn to read, and sang Biblical stories, mainly from the Old Testament, to show how God would deliver them out of bondage. These valiant people described situations with wonderful haunting melodies, poignant harmonies and subtle rhythms. The music, sometimes called "Sorrow Songs," became better known as "Negro Spirituals." Slaves vocalized clever escape routes which were disguised in resplendent poetic texts laced with double and sometimes triple entendre. This helped launch the slave escape initiatives, routes later known as the "Underground Railroad."
In 1871, a small group of music students from a fledgling school for blacks, formed a vocal ensemble, to give concerts and raise money for the school. That school, today's Fisk University, is famous because those students toured the USA and parts of Europe giving exquisite concerts of European classical music and introducing audiences to Negro Spirituals. They were called "The Fisk Jubilee Singers."
In 1892, the Czech composer, Antonin Dvorák heard the black singer/composer H. T. Burleigh sing Spirituals and said America should adopt these songs as its national music.
Here in the 21st century we continue to celebrate the music which helped destroy slavery. We hail the indigenous arts songs which have helped define our country. These musical jewels must take their rightful place on the pedestal of American music.
Dr. J LanYe'