George Stimpson

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Who wrote the Negro spirituals?

The spirituals are sacred folk songs created or modified by the Negroes in America. Although many of them have been arranged and interpreted by known composers, their words and music are traditional and their individual authorship is not known. Many of the spirituals apparently developed in Negro communities and are the expression of group rather than individual experiences. The Negro has always had a tendency to put his experience into song and it is probable that Negro bards began to create or to adapt the spirituals soon after their subjection to slavery and their conversion to Christianity. The spirituals seem to have grown up almost spontaneously among the Negroes as they gathered in the fields and cabins and in the churches and meetinghouses on the plantations. They combine Christian sentiments with rhythm and music possessing African characteristics. Some of the spirituals in the West Indies and South America contain traces of direct influence from Africa, but those on the North American mainland show few, if any, traces of a direct African heritage. They are characteristic of the Negroes but original with them only in mood and arrangement. Often they are merely old religious or secular folk songs of the white man reworked to suit the mood and fancy of the Negro. Some appear to be based on long-forgotten English, Irish and Scottish songs that the Negroes picked up and modified generations ago. Many are based on fragments of Biblical stories told dramatically and vividly. When the Negroes began to create or to adapt these beautiful folk songs and hymns is not known. Some pieces undoubtedly date back nearly two centuries. It is said [page 69] that the favorite "plantation songs" among the Negroes of slavery days are best preserved among the Cherokee Indians of North Carolina. The Negro spirituals are remarkable in that, though born in slavery, they contain no note of bitterness. No effort was made to record the spirituals until after the Civil War, and they were not fully appreciated by musical critics until after they were introduced to the public in 1871 by the Fisk Jubilee Singers. A peculiar type of music developed by the Negro minstrels in Trinidad is called Calypso. Calypso songs, accompanied by the guitar, are sung by the Negroes in a French patois liberally interspersed with Spanish and Hindu idioms and words or in English with an odd British accent. Professor N. G. Balanta, a native of West Africa, spent many years in an effort to trace the source and history of Negro spirituals. "Christianity," he wrote in 1930, "was the force that breathed life in the innate musical talent of the African in his new environment. Far from his native land, despised by those among whom he lived, knowing the hard taskmaster, feeling the lash, the Negro seized Christianity, the religious compensations in the life to come for the ills suffered in the present existence. The result was a body of songs voicing all the cardinal virtues of Christianty—patience, forbearance, love, faith and hope—through a modified form of primitive African music."