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Portrait of an African American child, Eatonville, Fla.; A Methodist church, Eatonville, Fla.; Portrait of a man holding a hat; Portrait of Rev. Haynes, Eatonville, Fla. June, 1935. Lomax collection of photographs depicting folk musicians, primarily in the southern United States and the Bahamas. Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress.

Negro Spirituals

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, and rap.

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 Africa.

Drawing on 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:

They would 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.

Spirituals also contained hidden transcripts. In coded language, they offered practical advice about escaping from slavery.

What did Frederick Douglass mean when he wrote the following words about the spirituals?

I 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.

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