In the decades
before the Civil War, enslaved African Americans created diverse
forms of music, including work songs, field hollers, and spirituals,
that would leave a powerful imprint on later forms of American
music: on gospel, ragtime, jazz, rhythm and blues, rock and roll,
One of the
most significant musical forms was the spiritual. During the late
18th and early 19th century, many African Americans converted
to Christianity, but they reshaped the religion to meet their
distinctive needs and blended it with traditions carried from
stories from the Old and New Testament, the spirituals dealt with
religious themes-faith, freedom, hope and salvation. They expressed
sorrow over life in bondage, but also hope in a better life. Frederick
Douglass, the fugitive slave who would become one of this country's
leading abolitionists, described the significance of the spirituals
with these words:
sing words which to many would seem unmeaning jargon, but which
nevertheless, were full of meaning to themselves. I have sometimes
thought that the mere hearing of those songs would do more to
impress some minds with the horrible character of slavery than
the reading of whole volumes of philosophy. I did not, when a
slave, understand the deep meaning of those songs. They told a
tale of woe which was then altogether beyond my feeble comprehension;
they were tones loud, long, and deep; they breathed the prayer
and complaint of souls boiling over with the bitterest anguish.
Every tone was a testimony against slavery and a prayer to God
for deliverance from chains...Slaves sing most when they are most
unhappy. The songs of the slave represent the sorrows of his heart;
and he is relieved by them, only as an aching heart is relieved
by its tears.
also contained hidden transcripts. In coded language, they offered
practical advice about escaping from slavery.
did Frederick Douglass mean when he wrote the following words
about the spirituals?
have often been utterly astonished, since I came to the north,
to find persons who could speak of the singing, among slaves,
as evidence of their contentment and happiness. It is impossible
to conceive of a greater mistake. Slaves sing most when they
are most unhappy. The songs of the slave represent the sorrows
of his heart; and he is relieved by them, only as an aching
heart is relieved by its tears. At least, such is my experience.
I have often sung to drown my sorrow, but seldom to express
my happiness. Crying for joy, and singing for joy, were alike
uncommon to me while in the jaws of slavery. The singing of
a man cast away upon a desolate island might be as appropriately
considered as evidence of contentment and happiness, as the
singing of a slave; the songs of the one and of the other are
prompted by the same emotion.