Spirituals

“Spirituals (also known as Negro spirituals, Spiritual music, or African-American spirituals) is a genre of songs originating in America, that were created by African Americans. Spirituals were originally an oral tradition that imparted Christian values while also describing the hardships of slavery.”

There have been many different names over the years for the genre of music known as spirituals. In addition to the names listed above, they have also been known as “sorrow” songs and “freedom” songs. I am interested in why these two adjectives, seemingly contrasting in meaning, have been used to describe the same type of music.

As the above definition states, spirituals were originally preformed to impart Christian values while detailing the affliction of slavery. I cannot help but initially theorize that the adjective “freedom” more accurately displays the original emotion of those who sang the songs and the adjective “sorrow” more accurately represents the current attitude towards said songs. Although W.E.B. DuBois wrote “Of the Sorrow Songs” decades before Bernice Johnson Reagon was even born, I am still partial to my aforementioned “chronology.” One piece of evidence that seems to support my claim is the discrepancy between the name “sorrow songs” and the actual lyrics of the songs. The name “sorrow songs” seems to convey a deep sadness that should also be imbued in the lyrics; however, most of the lyrics of the songs end up being rather uplifting or hopeful. Even DuBois ends “Of the Sorrow Songs” on a hopeful note, writing, “Through all the sorrow of the Sorrow Songs there breathes a hope–a faith in the ultimate justice of things.” 

DuBois refers to spirituals as “sorrow songs” in his work The Souls of Black Folk, and even spends an entire chapter on why he refers to these songs by that name.  By calling these traditional songs “sorrow songs,” DuBois means to remind his audience of the true history of these songs. As I mentioned in a former blog post, despite how enslaved people came into having the title of slaves, it isn’t a chosen “profession.” The experiences of enslaved people have had far-reaching effects, even spanning generations to affect their modern descendants. Descendants of enslaved peoples, and even those who simply share similar skin tones, are held to an awful legacy of injustice and inequality. DuBois’ main argument posits that the ten master songs that he mentions in “Of the Sorrow Songs” “tell in word and music of trouble and exile, of strife and hiding; they grope toward some unseen power and sigh for rest in the End.” To DuBois, there is no denying the trials that the creators of these songs went through.

Contrastingly, Johnson Reagon refers to her beloved spirituals as “freedom songs.” According to Johnson Reagon, “The only requirement within the African tradition is that it [a freedom song] must express your need to change your situation.” This quote stuck out to me as I watched the in-class film as I perceive Johnson Reagon’s words to mean that the songs themselves are expressions of freedom simply because the people singing them desire to be so. Dr. McCoy has quoted Johnson Reagon’s lesson that songs are a way to get to singing. This lesson seems to fit in nicely with the above quote as the results imply active modification of a situation; that is, from static to change or from silence to singing. As an a cappella singer of spirituals, Johnson Reagon imbues these songs with such movement and life. It is clear from watching her perform that she feels a range of emotion as she sings, sometimes more sad and sometimes more triumphant.  I believe Johnson Reagon acknowledges the sorrow in spirituals but wishes to focus on the more hopeful freedom elements of the same songs.

Members of the Abrahamic faith traditions have long endured a mix of sacrifice and worship which is paralleled by the experiences of enslaved peoples and their descendants in America. Perhaps spirituals were originally sung in the spirit of freedom, but after over hundreds of years of singing, the descendants are the original singers are still not free which has led to some like DuBois to favor sorrow. Many Americans take “simple” freedoms for granted every single day: the freedom to walk down a street without being unnecessarily threatened by violence, the freedom to protest injustice without fear for the lives of themselves and their families, and the freedom to exist without harassment to their person. DuBois recalls the degree to which America owes much of its foundation to its “Negro people” who have helped to shape it over the centuries through hardship but with determination to be free.  In fact, Johnson Reagon would likely agree the spirituals are a complex mix of sorrow and freedom. In this case, the two adjectives build upon each other, not outweighing, but seeking to balance pain with hope.

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