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What Were African American Spirituals, and What's Their Musical Legacy?


This episode is brought to you by IBM Today. New problems need new. Thinking retailers are turning to the cloud to restock shelves more quickly teachers are working with ai to rethink the classroom. Let's put smart to work see how IBM's helping at IBM DOT com slash Cova. Nineteen welcome to brain stuff. A production of iheartradio. Hey Brain stuff. Lauren vocal bomb here. When enslaved Africans were brought to the Americas often their cultural traditions or the sole possessions they were able to carry including a tradition of vibrant rhythmic communal music. And that's how the black spiritual was born. Although white communities had their own folks spirituals. Enslaved people used spirituals as a form of work song. In order to boost their companion spirits convey their sorrows convey secret messages and seek comfort in God. We spoke by email with Sandra. Jean Graham Miss Associate Professor of Ethnomusicology at Absent College and the author of spirituals and the birth of a black entertainment industry. She explained that. Although enslaved peoples came from many different African societies there were some common musical traditions that brought about spiritual these practices included communal songs featuring Colin Response. In which some performers or usually the would call a statement or. Ask a question and other singers would respond. Graham said that in these common traditions songs also exhibited a flexible approach to pitch and a pattern of repetition and variation that allowed overlapping. Musical layers and quote improvised embellishment of melodies and rhythm. She also cites black composer and scholar. Olly Wilson who stated there was a preference for heterogeneous sound ideal or a combination of certain timbers voices and instruments which was common to many African and African American musical traditions. Graham said in addition music was usually linked to other arts such as dance poetry drama clothing and it played a prominent role in social and political life and finally music had a spiritual aspect linked to ritual ancestors the gods that inhabited the natural world. Perhaps most famously. Enslaved people communicated secret messages through spirituals. As a way to bypass the slave masters would be listening in on their conversations. They sang through coded songs to provide instructions that would allow them to escape to the north and to freedom particularly on the underground railroad Graham said. Harriet Tubman famously used goes down Moses to signal that she was nearby and ready to conduct people to the north and she used it in the water to direct her passengers toward a river. If bloodhounds were on their trail. According to Graham Frederick Douglass. Who became a prominent abolitionist? After escaping slavery wrote about sending a spiritual in an escape attempt including the words run to. Jesus shunned the danger. I ain't GonNa stay much longer here. However the enslavers caught onto Douglas's plan because they saying to fervently it's possible that spirituals didn't function as much in escape attempts as we might think though Graham says it's impossible to know due to the lack of written documentation but after the civil war and the abolition of slavery in the United States spiritual took on a new purpose in black communities they became chief fixture of commercial entertainment during the reconstruction era. The songs were arranged concert music and then written down and sold as sheet music and in books this new spiritual was intended to be more of a presentational experience with performers and observers rather than a communal experience in which all attendees participated. Graham said so the biggest change was at spirituals where presented as art music and were also committed to print removing the plethora of opportunities for improvisation and participation the folk tradition had provided and there was one group that popularized this concert spirituel more than any other the fisk jubilee singers. Who went on tour to fundraise for Fisk University in the eighteen seventies? After the singer's tour their spirituals became branded as jubilee songs which held sway in pop culture through the end of the eighteen. Hundreds and early nineteen hundreds Harry. T burleigh took up the mantle and began composing spirituals for Solo singers and pianists with singers like Marian Anderson and Paul robeson performed in the nineteen twenties through the forties but in the latter half of the twentieth century spirituals fell out of favour of African Americans. Randy Jones wrote in her book. So you want to sing. Spirituals a guide for performers that quote as a result of the rebirth of racial pride obtained from the Civil Rights. Struggles of the nineteen sixties. Anything that appeared to reflect passivity and acceptance of the status quo was rejected by the young warriors who fought in the trenches treat the rewards of political activism according to Jones Book. Many black activists turned to gospel music instead which had risen out of the rise of pentecostal worship in the early nineteen hundreds grant expanded on the Difference Between Gospel Music and spirituals saying whereas spiritual focused on the afterlife as as Source Eventual Freedom Gospel meaning. Good news songs focused on the here and now how to get through each day but what about the connection between spiritual and other musical traditions within black communities such as the Blues Graham Sites Theologian James Cone who called Blues Secular spirituals. Graham said they may have been born in freedom but African Americans still suffered and the blues was vessel into which they poured their daily troubles of blues. Artists even sang spirituals in the blues style. But it is true. That spirituals are in a sense. No longer a living tradition. The last time they were newly created to serve a vital social role was during the civil rights movement but spiritual also live on today in the imagination of Modern Day. Artists like the Macintosh county shouters and pianist. Laura downs downs forthcoming album. Some of these days reflects on social justice themes particularly through her contemporary rendition of spirituals. Downs chose spirituals partly as a way to connect to her family history and the black struggle for freedom. Downs told US fight email. My Dad was black and my mom is white and they met at a sit. In during the civil rights movement and that movement was really powered by this music spirituals and freedom songs so this music was the soundtrack to their activism and their love story downs was drawn to the emotional intensity defiance and underlying message of hope within spirituals. She drew inspiration from performances by black singers and civil rights activists like Mahalia Jackson and Nina Simone for downs spirituals represent our conscience and our courage. They also remind her of the uneven nature of progress throughout US history. She said they are the best possible reminder that the road to freedom is along and we still have a long way to go that we have to keep moving forward despite roadblocks and hazards and we have the ancestors at our backs episode was written by. Terry. You're LLEGADO and produced by tyler client or more on this. Lots of other topics visit past afford dot com. Rain stuff is production of iheartradio for more podcast. 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