The Power of Spirituals

I love African American Spirituals! I have long been a proponent of singing spirituals in music class because of their educational value. But I am starting to realize that there could be more value in these amazing songs, not just because of their historical significance or musical qualities, but because of the spirit in the spirituals. More on that later.

As you probably already know, African American spirituals were (and are) mostly made up on the spot both inside and outside of the church. The original songs were called negro spirituals and often included work songs sung by slaves. (Spirituals now are often referred to as “gospel music.”) The themes are mostly about God, Bible stories and freedom. This site has more than 200 spirituals listed, and my collection (here) has 70+.

Easy to Learn

I have always enjoyed singing spirituals in the classroom because of how many of them are easy to learn and are rich with musical qualities. For instance, there are many songs that have four phrases, where the first three phrases have the same lyrics (often with phrase two’s melody changing slightly) and the last phrase is different. Here is a list of some of those songs (all are found on this page):

With these songs, we can immediately discuss phrases and melodic contour (i.e. “What is different about the melody in the 2nd phrase? Does it go up or down at the end?”).

Other Musical Qualities

The bouncy (for lack of a better term) rhythm encourages clapping and other body percussion, which can easily be transferred to percussion instruments. Many of these songs are based on the pentatonic scale, which helps students improvise xylophone or glockenspiel parts (because notes in the pentatonic scale don’t usually “clash” with each other due to the lack of half steps). Many songs also have simple chord structures, which can be played with a bordun (open fifth) of the tonic chord most, if not all, of the time. For example “Woke Up this Mornin'” in the key of F could be on F and C. If I were accompanying the song on the piano, I would change chords, but it definitely works to have students play the same bordun the whole way through. The sky is the limit with what you can teach: many spirituals have “mi-re-do” patterns, often at the end of the 4th phrase. If you are teaching syncopation, there are so many spirituals to choose from.


Some spirituals have chorus & verse (Ain’t that a-Rockin’ All Night, All Night All Day, Amen,Amen, Angel Band, Chatter with the Angels, Down By the Riverside, Go Down Moses, Heav’n, Heav’n, Go Tell it on the Mountain, Joshua Fit the Battle of Jericho, Little David Play on Your Harp, Who Built the Ark, etc). Others have call and response (Swing Low Sweet Chariot can be sung this way. The “response” is “coming for to carry me home.”) In fact, many of these were originally call and response. Children Go Where I Send Thee is an cumulative song. Dry Bones is ABC. And I can’t continue without mentioning that some spirituals are rich with hidden meaning. Follow the Drinking Gourd is probably the most famous, but there are many more (PBS lesson plan here).

The Spirit in Spirituals

OK, now I would like to propose that the spirit behind the spirituals is what makes them so great. Whether or not you believe in the Christian message in the lyrics, I would like to propose that the songs are spiritually powerful. Imagine the horror of being a slave. Wouldn’t you expect slave songs to be filled with hopelessness, despair and hate? It amazes me that spirituals were filled with faith – that someday, whether on earth or in heaven, they would be free. So, these songs kept their spirits up. We all have experienced the power of music and singing. We have also heard of the power of positive thinking. Both of these elements were combined to create spiritually powerful songs. I would like to suggest the songs helped them overcome their circumstances in their souls and spirits. Keeping their minds on their faith helped them to rise above, similar to them saying, “You can hurt my body, but you can’t hurt my soul and spirit.”

Let’s contrast spirituals with one of the modern-day genres that can trace its roots to African American music: hip-hop. I think some of the spirit behind these songs is negative. And yes, music has a power to be therapeutic as you pour out your emotions, such as some spirituals do (“Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child” or “Nobody Knows the Trouble I’ve Seen”). However, it seems that the balance between positive lyrics and negative lyrics is skewed in the negative direction. And what is this doing for the souls and spirits of our next generation? Are they learning to overcome their circumstances by having faith in a better future?

As I recently proposed to a Beth’s Notes Plus member who needed some ideas for teaching music in an inner city middle school, how about we encourage students to analyze some of the elements of a rap (which often have recurring riffs or motifs or ostinati – whatever you want to call it) and then use those recurring rhythms and melodies, but write their own positive messages similar to the spirituals. They could have 3 phrases with the same lyrics, followed by a contrasting phrase or a call and response or verse/refrain. They could have messages of hope instead of despair.

So I leave you with this question: how could we be agents of change for the next generation, using the lessons of the power of the spirituals?

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2 thoughts on “The Power of Spirituals”

  1. Hi
    I could not agree more with your ideas about using music to move the spirit in a positive direction. I always remember the song ‘young gifted and black’ from the 70s or 80s and it was so positive and made me want to dance. That positive music has been replaced with hopeless ghetto style aggression and misogyny.
    Could you analyze this song. Where does the positive feeling come from, is it the rhythm or the harmonies.
    Thank you

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