The African-American Spiritual: Across the Atlantic and Back

Many of us are familiar with the howling genius of the late BB King, whose sublime guitar playing will forever have its place in the annals of Blues history. Many more still will be familiar with that unique blend of soul, disco and funk that signifies the music of another departed genius of African-American origin – Michael Jackson. If you were lucky enough to see Wynton Marsalis perform with his Big Band this February at the Barbican in London, you’ll no doubt still be whistlin’ tunes from his expansive set list – one which manages to cover the full spectrum of the jazzosphere from its New Orleans inception, to bebop, to modern fusion. And I dare anybody not to be moved by Bob Marley’s heartbreaking Redemption Song. All familiar styles, all pleasing to the ear and, most importantly, all descended from the African-American Spiritual.

‘Tippett’s inspiration was realising that the spirituals convey a significance beyond their origin as 19th Century American slave songs’

A type of folk song typically sung in a call and response form, with a leader improvising a line of text and a chorus providing a unison refrain, the Spiritual became a vital way to express hope, faith and sorrow as Africanised Christianity took hold of the slave population in the 19th Century. With its loosely structured style abounded in freeform turns, slides and rhythms, it is easy to see how it became a key ingredient in the musical melting pots that were New Orleans, St Louis and Chicago.

The Old Plantation  by John Rose depicts slaves making music

The Old Plantation by John Rose depicts slaves making music

It is somewhat of a historical irony that a form of song born out of human captivity has inspired so many free and jubilant forms of musical expression. When you sit back and enjoy the dazzling improvisation of Miles Davis or Randy Brecker, it is difficult to find in it any link to desolate songs of captivity and redemption. And, at the furthest end of the spectrum, the picture of African escapees singing Swing Low Sweet Chariot on a train-ride to freedom does not segue smoothly into a 21st Century Twickenham Stadium, where thousands of predominantly white, English rugby fans sing the exact same song to cheer on their team. In a case like this, where there is such an extreme (and admittedly confusing) contextual juxtaposition between the song’s inception and reiteration, it would be easy to accuse the English of cultural appropriation. 

However, I prefer to see this ‘borrowing’ instead as a respectful nod to the inspiring and uplifting nature of its melody and form, and – as any gospel singer will tell you – the euphoria that comes with singing such a song amongst your friends and peers. The Spiritual also regularly pops up in another very English medium – one often associated with gowns, ruffs and grumpy organists. Having donned a gown and processed down the aisle of Salisbury Cathedral many times as a boy, you can imagine my delight as a chorister to come across settings of Spirituals, in between bouts of groan-inducing Agnus Dei’s and Benedictai.

It is somewhat of a historical irony that a form of song born out of human captivity has inspired so many free and jubilant forms of musical expression

Our rather progressive choirmaster would regularly treat us to Philip Lawson arrangements of Spirituals like As I Went Down to the River To Pray, which many will remember from the soundtrack of Coen brothers film Oh Brother Where Art Thou? Or, Michael Tippett’s profoundly moving oratorio Child of our Time where the traditional chorale is replaced by four gorgeous settings of Spirituals including Steal Away and Deep River, each harnessing the raw power of the form, giving it a soaring and ethereal quality. Written in 1939, the oratorio was a response to European fascism and disunity – a theme made immediately clear with its haunting opening line 'The world turns on its dark side.' Tippett deliberately harnessed the universality of feeling in the Spiritual as a method of communicating his political and moral preoccupations to as many people as possible, regardless of creed or culture. As conductor Mark Wigglesworth writes: 'Tippett’s inspiration was realising that the spirituals convey a significance beyond their origin as 19th Century American slave songs, and that their music transcends time and place to poignantly unite the two extremes of the human condition: desolation and hope.'

African American composer Florence price used themes from Spirituals in much of her music. Photo: University of Arkansas Libraries Special Collections

African American composer Florence price used themes from Spirituals in much of her music. Photo: University of Arkansas Libraries Special Collections

In the same year, back across the Atlantic in Washington DC, African-American contralto Marian Anderson performed a setting of Florence Price’s My Soul’s Been Anchored in the Lord as part of an Easter concert organised by Eleanor Roosevelt. Price was a female, classical composer also of African-American heritage, and to many this concert – broadcast across the country – proved the legitimacy of the 1920s Harlem Renaissance and marked the acceptance of African-American artistry in the United States. The Spiritual had come home, ‘free’ of its shackles. But the triumph was bittersweet, for the concert had to be held outside on the Lincoln Memorial steps: black performers were not allowed to sing in the Constitution Hall, and it would be another 25 years until the Civil Rights Act ended segregation in public places.

Sadly, Florence Price and so many other key figures of the Harlem Renaissance did not live to see the Act come into effect, but I like to think that they all would be extremely proud of the enormous musical influence the spiritual still has on composers and songwriters across the globe (just today BBC Radio Three aired a beautiful arrangement of Deep River by Royal Academy Head of Piano Joanna McGreggor). And whilst there are many places where people continue to battle against discrimination, I hope that those first singers of Spirituals in 19th century America would be gratified to see those themes of hope and redemption finally coming to some semblance of fruition.