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Negro Spirituals have had a huge influence on the Gospel Music we know today. The history of black Gospel music is incredible. It’s a direct descendant of the Spirituals sung by the American slaves. It’s interesting to note that John Wesley was an expert on the hot topic of slavery and wrote a famous account of it in 1774.
Negro Spirituals - clear forerunners of Gospel music - were originally known as "Corn ditties" and they were sung after working hours in or outside the plantation Praise House. The Spirituals fell roughly into two types, those which worshipped God and looked forward to heaven and those which described their working conditions – usually in a religious context.
Many of the slaves tried to escape – they wanted to go to a free country which they described as "my home" or "Sweet Canaan, the Promised Land". And when they sang of crossing the River Jordan, it was actually the River Ohio they meant! They felt that all would be well if they could get to the free land north of the Ohio.
Some slaves were employed to build a railway under the River Ohio and they tried to escape through the tunnel by wading through the water which collected in it, or by using the chariots which transported building materials through it. This explains Negro Spirituals like Wade in the Water, The Gospel Train and Swing low, Sweet Chariot – they all refer to methods of escape.
Negro Spirituals were a kind of code or jargon, clearly understood by the slaves who sang them. This use of music as an underground message is one seen down the centuries in different cultures. Take traditional Irish folksongs as another example. You could simply hum a tune and your sentiment would reach the ears of those who were meant to hear.
I recall conducting a concert in which Michael Tippett’s Spiritual arrangements (Child of our Time) were sung just after a Palestrina Mass. As I conducted I realised that the Negro Spirituals had far more religious profundity than the Palestrina. I experienced them as songs which sprang from deep religious feelings and belief. This didn’t seem to apply to the Palestrina.
I was fascinated to discover afterwards that all 17 members of the choir felt the same way. Spirituals led to black Gospel music and this retains the intensity and power of the original songs. It has become a most potent form of Church music.
Negro Spirituals are a major influence on Gospel Music, along with the Salvation Army movement in Britain, and the two Victorian preacher/hymn-writers Moody and Sankey. See how these paths all led to the Gospel Music and Negro Spirituals we know today.
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