The spiritual is a category of folksong that originated in the United State in more or less the second half of the eighteenth century, 1740 to the turn of the century. Although there is a subgroup of spirituals called “white spirituals,” which include shape-note hymns, camp-meeting songs, and folk hymns, most often the term spiritual is used to denote songs from the African-American community.
Often referred to as “Negro spirituals,” these songs were predominantly and initially “spiritual songs” that arose from the singers’ Christian worship. Used in church services, some also came to be used as work songs, with a call and response form allowing for the regulation of work operations that had to be coordinated in time.
A specialized use of spirituals arose due to the repressive ban on spoken communication between slaves in many places, and on the exigencies that arose as the Underground Railroad grew and escapes had to be planned. In these conditions, the spiritual came to be used as a coded message, carrying not only its initial spiritual meaning, but a secondary practical meaning.
For example, the analogy between the route of escape and a railroad or other vehicle, such as a chariot, was carried into the spirituals. References to getting “onboard,” “stations,” and “home” meaning the destination in a free state or Canada, abounded. Songs like “The Gospel Train” and “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot” are instances.
Harriet Tubman, a fugitive slave who was the Underground Railroad’s greatest “conductor,” or shepherd of slaves to freedom, used a spiritual as a signature song. If she had to leave a group of her “passengers” in hiding to scope out the road ahead during a journey, she would sing “Go Down, Moses,” which referenced her reputation as “the Moses of her people,” for leading so many slaves to freedom as Moses lead the Israelites out of Egypt.
Among the most famous spirituals are the following:
• “Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child,”
• “Were You There When They Crucified My Lord?”
• “Michael, Row the Boat Ashore,”
• “Nobody Knows the Trouble I’ve Seen,”
• “Joshua Fit the Battle of Jericho,” and
• “Wade in the Water.”
All of these, and others, can still be heard today, both in worship and concert settings.