African American Spirituals

The History

How They Began (1800's/19th Century)

Almost all the first Africans who arrived in the New World were slaves. They came from several regions of the African West Coast. Rural slaves used to stay after the regular worship services in churches for singing and dancing. They also had secret meetings of at secret places, for thousands, because they needed to meet one another and share their joys, pains and hopes.
Spirituals' lyrics reflected

  • Work
  • God
  • Freedom
Many slaves tried to run to a “free country” they called Jordan.

Secretly gave directions for the Underground Railroad.

Spirituals and the Underground Railroad

The Underground Railroad helped slaves to run to the free country. Slaves embedded secret messages in their spirituals giving directions to freedom. They implemented this in several ways; first, they had to walk at night, using hand lights and moonlight. When needed, they walked (“waded”) in water, so that dogs could not smell their tracks. Second, they jumped into chariots, where they could hide and ride away. These chariots stopped at some “stations”, but this word could mean any place where slaves had to go for being taken in charge.

~So, spirituals like “Wade in the Water”, “The Gospel Train” and “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot” directly refer to the Underground Railroad.

Musical Characteristics


-strong steady beat


-depending on the style, some are slow and deliberate, others are driving and pulsating, and others possess the beat of celebration and elation.


-call and response

-between two groups

-between soloist and a group


-creating on the spot

-easy repetitive melodies

-allowed easy access to improvisation

Participation and Meaning

-large community involvement

-contained profound traits of spirituality and faith

Ithacappella - Wade in the Water