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  As early as the 16th century the word ‘spiritual’ was used to denote Christian religious texts sung to folk or popular secular tunes. Later, it was used to distinguish these religious songs from traditional psalms and hymns. The white-American spiritual flourished in the southern states during the revivalist religious movements of the 18th and 19th centuries, particularly in the camp-meeting an open-air service involving huge congregations and lasting several days. The use of folk melodies was regarded by many dissenting denominations as a revolt against the staid psalmody of the established doctrines. The texts and tunes of the camp-meeting spirituals were characteristically simple and repetitive, using stock phrases and responsorial refrains. Although the white spiritual emerged from, and belonged essentially to, an oral tradition, many were published using an elementary teaching notation called ‘shape-note’, in which each pitch was given its own individual shape.

The belief that the black spiritual evolved exclusively among black slaves transported from Africa to America, and that it retained identifiable African traits, has now been displaced by substantial evidence suggesting that both black and white spirituals shared common origins in the inter-racial camp-meetings. However, the musical and textual similarities between black and white spirituals and the work songs of the black slaves, with their recurring themes of death, salvation and liberation, nurtured the independent growth of what can be regarded as the first, truly syncretic Afro-American music.

During the 1870s, a black, university-based ensemble called the Fisk Jubilee Singers took the black spirituals to a wider, international audience by performing them in arrangements harmonized according to the European art music tradition. Their popularity was soon followed by the publication of many collections with piano accompaniment. It is these mediated, urbanized versions that most will recognize as the so-called Negro spiritual. SSt

Further reading Dena J. Epstein, Sinful Tunes and Spirituals: Black Folk Music to the Civil War; , George Pullen Jackson, White Spirituals in the Southern Uplands.



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