Folk music is characterized by its integration into daily life or its function as a means of passing time while engaged in activities such as work or travel. Work songs, children’s game songs, chain gang chants, songs of political protest, or religious music performed outside the context of the church can all be found in this wide-ranging area. Folk music is transmitted largely via oral traditions, and its practitioners rarely notate or document their compositions. The history of black music is filled with influential folk forms, such as the “field hollers” that are credited as being a source of the call-and-response devices that appear in blues, jazz, and other forms and styles of black music in the United States and the Caribbean.
General stylistic elements of folk vocal performance include call-and-response, full-throated tone quality, and gapped scales, flatted notes, and microtonal melodic progressions. Observers writing in the 1800s often mentioned their inability to describe performance practice adequately or to represent what was actually sung in standard Western notation. Because recording technology was not yet invented, we can only assume that earlier folk performances were not too different from recordings made after 1900.
Spirituals originated in the first half of the 1800s, when widespread efforts to convert slaves to Christianity occurred during the Second Great Awakening. The words to spirituals emphasize Biblical imagery, particularly Old Testament stories of liberation from bondage and New Testament stories from the life of Jesus and the apocalyptic visions of the Book of Revelation. Musical performance practice remained essentially African. The most common musical format was call-and-response, with a song leader singing improvised verses while a group provided short repetitive and often rhythmic responses. The songs themselves could be slow and mournful or in a more rhythmic and up-tempo style also associated with the ring shout, a holy dance.
Northerners became aware of the “slave songs” during the Civil War, and the first attempt to collect and publish them came as early as 1867 with Slave Songs of the United States, compiled and edited by William Francis Allen, Charles Pickard Ware, and Lucy McKim Garrison. Many other collections were published from the late 1800s through the 1930s. After 1900, spirituals were also important in the more popularized recorded repertoire of jubilee gospel quartets.
Spirituals might have remained in local congregations to be replaced gradually with newer musical styles if it had not been for the Jubilee Singers of Fisk University. During a tour to raise money for their struggling school in 1871, they discovered that their performances of spirituals especially delighted their audiences. Spirituals entered the concert repertoire. A number of important composers, notably Harry T. Burleigh, R. Nathaniel Dett, William Levi Dawson, Margaret Bonds, Hall Johnson, and more recently Moses Hogan, have made arrangements of traditional spirituals that are sung in churches and concert halls.
The story of the negro spirituals is closely linked to the History of African Americans, with its three milestones:
1865: the abolition of slavery
1925: the Black Renaissance
1985: the first Dr Martin Luther King’s Day.
Almost all the first Africans who arrived in the New World were slaves. They came from several regions of the African West Coast.
Their ways of living were described by slaves themselves, in some narratives. They had to work either in plantations or in town.
Slavery was an important issue facing Churches, as slaves were allowed to meet for Christian services. Some Christian ministers, such as J. D. Long, wrote against slavery.
Rural slaves used to stay after the regular worship services, in churches or in plantation “praise houses”, for singing and dancing.
But, slaveholders did not allow dancing and playing drums, as usual in Africa.
They also had meetings at secret places (“camp meetings”, “bush meetings”), because they needed to meet one another and share their joys, pains and hopes.
In rural meetings, thousands slaves were gathered and listened to itinerant preachers, and sang spirituals, for hours. In the late 1700s, they sang the precursors of spirituals, which were called “corn ditties”.
So, in rural areas, spirituals were sung, mainly outside of churches. In cities, about 1850, the Protestant City-Revival Movement created a new song genre, which was popular; for revival meetings organized by this movement, temporary tents were erected in stadiums, where the attendants could sing.
At church, hymns and psalms were sung during services. Some of them were transformed into songs of a typical African American form: they are "Dr Watts”.
The lyrics of negro spirituals were tightly linked with the lives of their authors: slaves. While work songs dealt only with their daily life, spirituals were inspired by the message of Jesus Christ and his Good News (Gospel) of the Bible, “You can be saved”. They are different from hymns and psalms, because they were a way of sharing the hard condition of being a slave.
Many slaves in town and in plantations tried to run to a “free country”, that they called “my home” or “Sweet Canaan, the Promised Land”. This country was on the Northern side of Ohio River, that they called “Jordan”. Some negro spirituals refer to the Underground Railroad, an organization for helping slaves to run away.