The thirtieth of May 1867 marked the beginning of the end for the Negro spiritual. On that date, there appeared in the New York Nation a notice of “the first attempt to collect and understand” that species of hymns often thought of as endemic to Afro-American enslaved people. [1] Though slave songs had long been the subject of equal fascination and derision by whites of the North and South, “No one up to this time”, one of the prospective compilers admitted – almost shamefacedly – had “explored for preservation the wild, beautiful, and pathetic melodies of the Southern slaves.” [2] In this spectacular and conservatory gesture, however, unwittingly lay a function of power.

Amid a wider emergence of the Negro spiritual as a discursive and analytical object, the Nation article and other abolitionist-driven “ethnosympathetic” efforts of their kind – in their distant treatment: a cruel typology, phrenology, and signaling authorization – would be the first to rob a century-long tradition of its own syncretic sacred mystery. [3] They would preclude its unique social context, and with it, an unrestrained flavor of Negro expression – till then mostly free from the voyeuristic, condescending gaze of the white spectator – within its unique hymnody, likewise, its bodily tendencies and improvisational instincts. Early white collectors of the black musical tradition had, in the words of Steven Garabedian, “worked in the mode of condescension and exoticism, not revolution.” [4]

As notated transcriptions and lyrical translations of Negro religious and work songs began to proliferate, a phonological deviation of the slave song from its original incarnations emerged. The spirituals themselves were adapted by white ears and eyes: resubmitted, rearranged. The transcriptions, as writes Ronald Radano, “ultimately amounted to little more than discursive fictions that offered a partial sampling of African American musical practices at a profound moment of cultural change.” [5] The nascent aestheticization of the negro spiritual would witness a possible apotheosis in none other than George L. White’s 1871 spectacle presenting his Fisk Jubilee Singers, who showcased what was, to the mostly white audience, simply a modified and commodified Hegelian gyration, an authentic minstrel burlesque. Here, the songs, though sung in original lyrics, were arranged differently: in tightly-harmonized choral structures, those that are characteristic of white Evangelical church hymns. The essence and form of the original spirituals, crucial components of diasporic memory, were being eroded.

The Spiritual Question

Since that first Nation article, much has been committed to the textuality of the Negro spiritual – its religion, psychology, philosophy, its essential silent polemic and protests, etc. Surprisingly less scholarship, however, has considered and examined its elision, alongside its pre-aesthetic musical elements, or more generally, its phonological qualities: that is, its original sounds and visions; its modal and tonal qualities, rhythmic and melodic structures, lyrical schemes, its sparse and specialized instrumentation, its vernacular orality and viva voce transmissions, along with its other properties and functions. [6]

The Historical Record and Toolkit

Because the technologies of sound recording and reproduction, viz. the phonograph, were only in their infancy by the latter quarter of the 19th century – around the time of the spiritual’s aestheticization and phonetic re-transposition – it is difficult to know what, exactly, pre-discursive spirituals sounded like when sung by 19th-century Afro-American enslaved people. Much of what has been written about the spiritual is secondary or, if not, too broad, subjective, or hyperbolic to be considered evidence worthy of scholarly reflection and treatment. [7] What helpful artifacts the historical record does bear witness to, however, include contemporary and later historiographies, selected descriptions of the singing of spirituals, carefully-transcribed and -notated sheet musics; later, early-20th-century recordings of former slaves, and oral histories of or by slaves or former slaves – among them those collected from 1936 to 1938 as part of Henry Alsberg’s Federal Writers’ Project (hereafter, WPA narratives). While these resources lend crucial clues, the record itself is imperfect. The “mechanical reproduction of music,” as writes Marybeth Hamilton, “transformed human experience by freeing sound from its roots in communities, from the constraints of time and place.” [8] Thus, audio recordings, along with sheet musics, WPA narratives and slave oral histories of similar practice and orientation – products of their time, to be sure; betraying authorial biases and omissions – must be handled with especial care and consideration.

Locating the Pre-Aesthetic “Sperichel”

Though Negro spirituals are traditionally said to have developed sometime during the mid-to-late 18th century by way of Afro-American enslaved people combining a syncretic, co-opted Christian faith with musical elements derived from the West African tradition, this simple, popular historiography is broad and incomplete, ultimately mitigating the lyrical and musical achievements of the enslaved people themselves. It ignores a hidden and misunderstood oral nature of preservation and, practically, its elision by way of white collection, fetishization, and aestheticization. It furthermore neglects the spiritual’s primarily social significations and contexts, its plainly American milieu and Afro-American geographies, and likewise, the importance of its artisanal qualities: its distinct, Africanizing appropriation of harmony and melody, rhythmic syncopation, crucial use of improvisational toolkits, and, moreover, its inventive and impressive submission and mastery of meter, mask, and symbolism. [9] This essay seeks to better situate the performance tradition and social meaning of Negro spirituals, with respect to their diverse musical structures, within the wider context of Negro oral and folk cultures by addressing their elusive black subjectivity and aestheticization by way of white sensibility. The Afro-American genius in “transmuting trouble into song” ultimately speaks not only of “life and death”, nor – as William Francis Allen reflected in his revealing final comment – “songs to be desired and regretted”, but moreover to a pre-aesthetic creative spirit, and those kinship values contained therein, within the lives of Afro-American enslaved people. [10]

“Denoting Difference”

“In diaries, journals, and public recollections”, writes Radano, “writers depicted the experience of the slave sound world as a peculiarly audible sensation whose special properties tested the outer limits of the Western imagination.” [11] These depictions and, later, transcriptions emerged as historical documents of white notetakers’ futile labor, the illustrations acquiring “an aura of transcendent uncontainability that summons the spiritual, inspiring sonic re-membering.” [12] As Radano later writes: “If the transcriptions were ‘but a faint shadow of the original … intonations and delicate variations [that] … cannot be reproduced on paper’, they nonetheless offered the image of an ancient encounter, of the witnessing of living vestiges of primordial sound.” By the present day, the “primordial sound” to which Radano uneasily gestures is neither necessarily graspable or communicable: “It is through the idea of difference that black America would finally hear its cultural past, discerning the echoes of an ancestral world saturated with textually invented ‘Negro sound’.” [13] The origins and evolution of the pre-aesthetic “sperichel” are thus necessarily obscured.

Defining the Spiritual

A proper, operational definition is paramount: as it revealed itself by the mid-19th  century, the Negro spiritual was a typology of popular, non-ecclesiastical hymn, generally performed in unison, among members of any given plantation’s enslaved population amid ritualized, but hardly liturgical “shouts”. [14] Because comparatively few enslaved people retained access to notational script, the spiritual was often collective and anonymous in authorship. [15] Pre-aesthetic spirituals were unaccompanied monophonic songs, sung antiphonally – that is, in complex call-and-response patterns – initially improvised, but over time canonized and popularized. [16]

Essentially religious in nature, spirituals were populated by Christian and biblical imagery and themes, often compounded by a singular focus on ahistorical-apocryphal figures, their trials, tribulations, and sufferings.  Lyrically, these were often compared to the grueling physical and emotional labor and suffering enslaved people endured on the Southern plantation, or, alternately, embodied the enslaved person’s desire for freedom and salvation, in the present world or hereafter. [17]Despite this Christian tenor and motivation, spirituals were ignorant of ecclesiastical orthodoxy: because many enslaved people lacked access to scriptural texts, the liturgy of the word is often absent from the slave songs. For example, the Holy Trinity – and specifically, the Holy Spirit – is almost never mentioned in spirituals. [18] Similarly, there is little distinction between God and Jesus in most spirituals. These heterodoxies would often be lost on, or glossed over by, those actors transcribing the spirituals.

Collection, Aestheticization, and Elision

In his memoir and slave narrative The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass (1845), Douglass pauses and asks his readers to hear the songs of slaves, later providing what Radano calls “an intriguing anticipation to one of the most important chapters in the history of [Afro-American] music”, the inscription of the slave songs – foregrounding the generative power of writing “to the point where text appears to overwhelm the originary presence of vernacular orality.” [19] “I did not, when a slave,” writes Douglass, “understand the meaning of those rude and apparently incoherent songs[.] I was myself within the circle; so, that I neither saw nor heard as those without might see and hear”. [20] Ultimately, the surviving transcriptions that Douglass foreshadowed and prefigured radically transformed the very conception of a slave music formerly “within the circle”. [21] As writes Jon Cruz:

Though rooted in a profound social critique, the cultural discovery of black music and the search for cultural authenticity soon began to pivot upon a particular cultural aestheticization of black practices that, in turn, highlighted black religious music over black political and literary voicings … [White abolitionists’] desire to transcribe black song making, particularly, the Negro spiritual, reflected a tendency that extolled the virtues of a preferred and idealized notion of the culturally expressive and performing subject – in this case the spiritual-singing Negro. [22]

The “Sperichel”

When the Bohemian composer Antonin Dvořák arrived in New Jersey in September 1892, to take up a position as the director of the recently established National Conservatory of Music of America, he had never heard a Negro spiritual – though he had likely heard much about them. [23] Dvořák began work on From the New World in January, 1893. [24]  In a newspaper article that appeared just a few months later in the New York Herald on May 21, 1893, Dvořák was quoted as saying that “in the Negro melodies of America I discover all that is needed for a great and noble school of music … There is nothing in the whole range of composition that cannot be supplied with themes from this source.” [25] He later proclaimed them “the most striking and appealing melodies that have yet been found on this side of the water,” arguing that a union of ballads and slave narratives expressed an emerging national spirit. [26] What Dvořák was most likely referring to is what is here submitted as the concert tradition of spiritual – that consolidated by the Fisk Singers and opposed to the originary, essential spiritual – the latter here termed pre-aesthetic.

Tonal, Rhythmic, and Harmonic Structures

Diction, dialect, and preservation of lyrics aside, pre-aesthetic spirituals were, generally speaking, very different from their concert tradition counterparts. They were quite dissonant, blending – as one report put it – “concord and discord so completely … as to produce perfect harmony”. [27] Frequently described by contemporaries as paradoxically “mournful”, “melancholic”, affecting, and rousing, they were often composed in a minor key, often described as having a more interesting, possibly sadder “sound” than plain major scales. [28] The earliest description of “distinctive religious singing by slaves”, according to Dana Epstein, dates from 1816 and appears to confirm this particular illustration. Standing on the steps of the Portsmouth, Virginia courthouse, George Tucker described the following:

[M]y ears were assailed by the voice of singing … I saw a group of about thirty Negroes, of different ages and sizes, following a rough looking white man … As they came nearer, I saw some of them loaded with chains to prevent their escape; while others had hold of each others’ hands … They came along singing a little wild hymn of sweet and mournful melody [emphasis added]; flying by a divine instinct of the heart, to the consolation of religion… [29]

Pre-aesthetic spirituals are, too, notable for their expressive and expansive employment of so-called “slave harmonies”. Slave harmonies– sometimes called barbershop harmonies due to their later proliferation and popularity among barbershop quartets – are, according to the musicologist Vic Hobson, “most commonly employed with the leading voice hanging on to one tone, while the other parts move around it. A single note is sung and then a chord is formed around that note by the other voices.”  [30] The first harmonies of this type are believed to have been sung by slaves in the mid-19th century. One early report of Afro-American quartet singing comes from Frederika Bremer, who traveled through Virginia in 1851, reporting: “I heard the slaves, about a hundred in number, singing at their work in large rooms; they sung [sic] quartets … in such perfect harmony, and with such exquisite feeling, that it was difficult to believe them self-taught.” [31]Syncopation was likewise a natural part of spiritual music. Joyful spirituals, sometimes known as jubilees, were often fast, rhythmic, and syncopated. [32]

Described and Prescribed: Performance Tradition

Many contemporary depictions of the Negro spiritual include seemingly obligatory, if rote and unclear, descriptions of the black body and its physicality, its kinetic tendencies amid the high-heat and tenor of the “shout”, jubilee, etc.; Because of the sometimes hyperbolic and difference-laden rhetoric, it is difficult to know where the minstrel caricature ends and reality begins. Radano writes, “In images of singing, dancing ‘hooting,’ and ‘shouting,’ chroniclers frequently depicted the plantation slaves – ‘the happiest of the human race’ – as masters of barbaric performative action and seemingly continuous bodily motion.” [33]  For example, a Northern school teacher named Charlotte Forten wrote a letter describing her experiences at St. Helena’s Island, South Carolina, where she was teaching Negro children and adults. Her account is as follows:

I must tell you that we were rowed thither from Beaufort by a crew of Negro boatmen, and that they sang for us several of their own beautiful songs. There is a peculiar wildness and solemnity about them which cannot be described, and the people accompanying the singing with a singular swaying motion of the body, which seems to make [the singing] more effective. [34]

Likewise with regard to Thomas Wentworth Higginson’s account – one of the first to include textual transcriptions – which begins in the following manner:

“Often in the starlit evening I have returned from some lonely ride by the swift river or on the plover-haunted barrens, and, entering the camp, have silently approached some glimmering fire, round which the dusky figures moved in the rhythmical barbaric dance the negroes call a “shout,” chanting, often harshly, but always in the most perfect time, some monotonous refrain.”

Another contemporary description illustrates the complexities of the so-called “ring shout”, a post-worship ecstasy during which slaves “often dance and shuffled counter-clockwise in a circle, singing rhythmically as they went.” [35]

Indeed, I contemplated the dancing group, with sensations of wonder and astonishment! The clappers rested the right foot on the heel, and its clap on the floor was in perfect unison with the notes of the [banjo], and palms of the hands on the corresponding extremities; while the dancers were all jigging it away in the merriest possible gaiety of heart, having the most ludicrous twists, wry jerks, and flexible contortions of the body and limbs, that human imagination can divine.

The ring shout, a way to bridge lingual and dialect barriers by combining choruses and verses from different hymns, is described thusly by the former slave Silvia King, transcribed in dialect:

An’ den de black folks ‘ud get off, down in de crick bottom, er in a thic’et, an’ sing an’ shout an’ pray. Don’t know why, but de w’ite folks sho’ didn’t like dem ring shouts de cullud folks had. De folks get in er ring an’ sing an’ dance, an’ shout; de dance is jes’ a kinder shuffle, den hit gets faster, an’ faster as dey gets wa’amed up; an’ dey moans an’ shouts; an’ sings, an’ claps, an’ dance. Some ob em gets ‘zausted an’ dey drop out, an’ de ring gets closer. Sometimes dey sing an’ shout all night, but at der break ob day, de nigger gotter get ter de cabin an’ get ‘bout he buizness fer de day. De w’ite folkssay de ring shout make de nigger loose he haid an’ dat he get all ‘cited up an’ be good fer nuffin’ for a week. [36]

The “Sperichel” and its Discontents

The Afro-American genius in “transmuting trouble into song” ultimately speaks to the kinship values and social connections present and, indeed, necessary in the lives of enslaved people. [37] While this is not necessarily a surprising conclusion, by their nature alone, these folk songs expressed the life experience of a people in their own vocabularies and musical forms. The pre-aesthetic spiritual tradition’s elision through collection, transcription, and aestheticization by way of a disparate musical canon exemplifies the power and violence of white supremacist textuality. The spiritual was a purely social phenomenon and it, unfortunately, died a uniquely social death.

[1] John Lovell, Jr., “The Social Implications of the Negro Spiritual,” The Journal of Negro Education 8, no. 4 (October 1939): doi:10.2307/2292903. p. 634.

[2] Nation, May 30, 1867, p. 428.

[3] Jon Cruz, Culture on the Margins: The Black Spiritual and the Rise of American Cultural Interpretation (Princeton, N.J: Princeton University Press, 1999). p. 3.

[4] Steven Garabedian, “Lawrence Gellert, Negro Songs of Protest,” African American Review 49, no. 4 (2016): 297–311, doi:10.1353/afa.2016.0048. p. 299.

[5] Ronald Radano, “Denoting Difference: The Writing of the Slave Spirituals,” Critical Inquiry 22, no. 3 (Spring 1996): 506–44. p. 508.

[6] (Lovell, Jr. 1939), 642.

[7] Though Negro spirituals are similar in form to, and are indeed sometimes conflated with, the camp meeting song – the so-called white spiritual – for the purposes of this essay, the term spiritual, used without a modifier, will refer only to those religious songs sung by Afro-American enslaved people. See George Pullen Jackson, White Spirituals in the Southern Uplands: The Story of the Fasola Folk, Their Songs, Singings, and “Buckwheat Notes” (Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Pres, 1933) and John F. Garst, “Mutual Reinforcement and the Origins of Spirituals,” American Music 4, no. 4 (Winter 1986): p. 391–393.

[8] Marybeth Hamilton, “On the Trail of Negro Folk Songs,” Journal of Popular Music Studies 18, no. 1 (April 2006): 66–93, doi:10.1111/j.1524-2226.2006.00076.x. p. 69.

[9] (Lovell, Jr. 1939), p. 642.

[10] (Lovell, Jr. 1939), p. 635.

[11] (Radano 1996), p. 512.

[12] (Radano 1996), p. 538.

[13] (Radano 1996), p. 544.

[14] John F. Garst, “Mutual Reinforcement and the Origins of Spirituals,” American Music 4, no. 4 (Winter 1986): p. 391–393.

[15] (Garst 1987), p. 394.

[16] Vic Hobson, “Plantation Song: Delius, Barbershop, and the Blues,” American Music 31, no. 3 (Fall 2013): p. 320. And Felicia M. Miyakawa, “‘A Long Ways from Home?’ Hampton Institute and the Early History of ‘Sometimes I Feel like a Motherless Child,’” Journal of the Society for American Music 6, no. 01 (February 2012): 1–49, doi:10.1017/S1752196311000393.

[17] Eileen Morris Guenther, In Their Own Words: Slave Life and the Power of Spirituals, 2014. p. 137.

[18] David McD. Simms, “The Negro Spiritual: Origins and Themes,” The Journal of Negro Education 35, no. 1 (1966): p. 35, doi:10.2307/2293924.

[19] (Radano 1996), p. 507.

[20] Frederick Douglass, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, Dover Thrift Editions (New York: Dover Publications, 1995). p. 65.

[21] (Radano 1996), p. 508.

[22] (Cruz 1999), p. 6.

[23] Michael B. Beckerman, New Worlds of Dvořák: Searching in America for the Composer’s

Inner Life (New York: W. W. Norton, 2003), xxi.

[24] Beckerman, p. xxi.

[25] (Hobson 2013), p. 315.

[26] Antonin Dvorak, “Music in America,” Harper’s New Monthly Magazine 90 (Feb. 1895): 428-434. And Radano, p. 516.

[27] William B. Smith, “The Persimmon Tree and the Beer Dance,” Farmer’s Registration 6 (Apr. 1838): 58–61; rpt. In The Negro and His Folklore in Nineteenth-Century Periodicals, ed. Bruce Jackson (Austin, Tex., 1967), p. 326.

[28] Richard Parncutt, “Major-Minor Tonality, Schenkerian Prolongation, and Emotion: A Commentary on Huron and Davis,” Empirical Musicology Review 7, no. 3–4 (2012), https://library.osu.edu/ojs/index.php/EMR/article/view/3731/3399. p. 1.

[29] Eileen Morris Guenther, In Their Own Words: Slave Life and the Power of Spirituals, 2014. p. 137.

[30] (Hobson 2013), p. 318.

[31] (Hobson 2013), p. 318.

[32] African American Spirituals. Online Text. Retrieved from the Library of Congress, https://www.loc.gov/item/ihas.200197495/. (Accessed March 29, 2017.)

[33] (Radano 1996), p. 518.

[34] Gilbert Chase, “A Note on Negro Spirituals,” Civil War History 4, no. 3 (1958): 261–67, doi:10.1353/cwh.1958.0006. p. 261.

[35] (Guenther 2014), p. 33.

[36] Iran Berlin, Marc Favreau and Stephen F. miller, eds., Remembering Slavery: African Americans Talk About Their Personal Experiences of Slavery and Freedom (Washington, D.C.: The New Press, 1998), 195–196.

[37] (Lovell, Jr. 1939), p. 635.

[38] (Guenther 2014), p. 11.

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