Spirituals and Gospel

Nobody Knows the Trouble I see, Lord
“Nobody Knows the Trouble I see, Lord,” from The Story of the Jubilee Singers with their Songs.

Spirituals are an oral tradition resulting from the mixture of African culture with Christianity on American plantations. Based on hymns, spirituals generally use call and response and take one of three forms: verse only, verse plus refrain, or refrain only. As in Gullah music, Spirituals make use of syncopated rhythms.

In the 1860s through the 1890s Spirituals were popularized through the performance of concert arrangements based on the folk tradition described above. This transition included a number of musical changes such as the introduction of  four part harmony, the replacement of dialect with Standard English, and the minimization of clapping and dancing. The most well-known group to popularize these arranged concert spirituals were the Fisk Jubilee Singers. The Fisk Jubilee Singers were formed to raise funds for Fisk University, a college for freed slaves established in 1866. Their popularity was such that they became a subject of parody in minstrel shows.

The musical example below, “Wade in the Water,” is a traditional spiritual arranged by Dr. Carl Wells, Director of the University of South Carolina Gospel Choir, and recorded in November 2015 during their annual Festival of Spirituals. About this work Dr. Wells writes, “Wade in the Water was a double entendre as is the case with much of the spirituals.” He goes on to say that the meaning of this song is not a depiction of a baptism but “rather, it was used by slaves who were located on the plantation as a means of telling an escaped slave to head for the waters because the slave master was coming after him with the dogs.”

“Wade In The Water” arr. by Dr. Carl Wells, Festival of Spirituals 2015. Performed by the University of South Carolina Gospel Choir, directed by Dr. Carl Wells.

As was mentioned in the page about Gullah tradition, drums were not allowed on plantations because they could be used as a means of communication. Dr. Wells writes, “Hence the slaves began using their songs as a double entendre, as a Morse code designed to talk about freedom and the under-ground railroad. This arrangement of Wade in the Water begins with the male voices. Their portion of the arrangement has been designed to represent and sound like African drums. The female voices carry the melody in this piece.”

African American Gospel music emerged in the 1930s and is influenced by spirituals, the blues, and hymns from numerous traditions. Though Gospel is a comprehensive term that includes the popular spiritual music of many groups, Black Gospel is the type most associated with the term today. Like Spirituals and Gullah music, Gospel utilizes the call and response structure as well as blue notes. Gospel mixes the sacred and the secular, and includes improvisation. The Fisk Jubilee Singers and groups like them that sang spirituals in secular contexts are part of the evolution from spirituals to gospel. Singer Mahalia Jackson played a significant role in the promotion and development of gospel music during the 1940s and 1950s. She could be frequently seen on national television and in concert halls, and had a contract with Columbia records as well. Another singer who emerged in the 1940s to popularize the genre was Sister Rosetta Tharpe, who famously combined gospel with jazz guitar.