Work songs, field calls, “sorrow songs,” and gospel.
Origins: 18th century to mid-19th century.
Origins: 18th century to mid-19th century.
“And so by fateful chance the Negro folk–song—the rhythmic cry of the slave—stands to–day not simply as the sole American music, but as the most beautiful expression of human experience born this side the seas.“
- W.E.B. DuBois in Souls of Black Folk, 1903.
- Souls of Black Folk by W.E.B. Du Bois, 1903. ︎
- Chapter 14: “The Sorrow Songs” is specifically about spirituals, but this is always a text worth reading in full.
Folk Song of the American Negro by John Wesley Work, 1915.
- Deep River and the Negro Spiritual Speaks of Life and Death by Dr. Howard Thurman, 1969.
- The Gospel Sound: Good News and Bad Times by Anthony Heilbut, 1971.
- Sinful Tunes and Spirituals: Black Folk Music to the Civil War by Dena Epstein, 1977.
- Just Mahalia, Baby by Laurraine Goreau, 1985.
- We'll Understand It Better By and By: Pioneering African American Gospel Composers by Bernice Johnson Reagon, 1992.
- The Spirituals and the Blues: An Interpretation by James H. Cone, 1992. ︎
- The Rise of Gospel Blues: The Music of Thomas Andrew Dorsey in the Urban Church by Michael W. Harris, 1992.
- Wade in the Water: The Wisdom of the Spirituals by Arthur C. Jones, 1993.
- How I Got Over: Clara Ward and the World-Famous Ward Singers by Willa Ward-Royster, Horace Clarence Boyer, 1997.
- Scenes of Subjection: Terror, Slavery, and Self-Making in Nineteenth-Century America by Saidiya Hartman, 1997. ︎
- Shout Because You're Free: The African American Ring Shout Tradition in Coastal Georgia by Art Rosenbaum, 1998.
- Culture on the Margins: The Black Spiritual and the Rise of American Cultural Interpretation by Jon Cruz, 1999.
- Dark Midnight When I Rise: The Story of the Jubilee Singers by Andrew Ward, 2000. ︎
The Book of the American Negro Spirituals by James Weldon Johnson, J. Rosamond Johnson, 2002.
- Singing in My Soul: Black Gospel Music in a Secular Age by Jerma A. Jackson, 2004.
- The Songs of Blind Folk: African American Musicians and the Cultures of Blindness by Terry Rowden, 2009. ︎
- For anyone particularly interested in a music text at the intersection of race and disability studies, this will be an incredible read.
- Aretha Franklin's Amazing Grace (33⅓ #84) by Aaron Cohen, 2011.
The Fan Who Knew Too Much: The Secret Closets of American Culture by Anthony Heilbut, 2013.
- Nothing but Love in God's Water: Volume 1: Black Sacred Music from the Civil War to the Civil Rights Movement by Robert Darden, 2014.
Harry T. Burleigh: From the Spiritual to the Harlem Renaissance by Jean E. Synder, 2016.
- Spirituals and the Birth of a Black Entertainment Industry by Sandra Jean Graham, 2018.
Mahalia Jackson and the Black Gospel Field by Mark Burford, 2018.
- Flaming: The Peculiar Theo-Politics of Fire and Desire in Black Male Gospel Performance by Alisha Lola Jones, June 2020.
When Sunday Comes: Gospel Music in the Soul and Hip-Hop Eras by Claudrena N. Harold, October 2020.
- Library of Congress’ Entry on African American Spirituals.
- “Spirituals and neo-spirituals” by Zora Neale Hurston, 1969.︎
- Accessible in compilations like Folklore, memoirs, and other writings.
- “Black Spirituals: An Analysis of Textual Forms and Structures” by Portia K. Maultsby, in Black Perspective in Music, Vol. 4, No. 1, 1976.
- “The Lined-Hymn Tradition in Black Mississippi Churches” by Ben E. Bailey, The Black Perspective in Music, Vol. 6, No. 1, 1978.
- “A White Origin for the Black Spiritual? An Invalid Theory and How It Grew” by Dena Epstein, American Music, Summer 1983.
- “Denoting Difference: The Writing of the Slave Spirituals” by Ronald Rodano, Critical Inquiry, Vol. 22, No. 3, Spring, 1996.
- “Opinion | Birth of a Freedom Anthem” by Ethan J. Kytle and Blain Roberts, NYTimes, March 2015.
- “The Number That No Man Could Number” by Anthony Heilbut, Harpers Magazine, February 2017.
- Coda to this piece: “The Old Prejudices” by Anthony Heilbut, Harpers Magazine, March 2017.
- “How a Slave Spiritual Became English Rugby’s Anthem” by Andrew Keh, NYTimes, March 2017.
- “Preserving Black American History Through Song in the Dominican Republic” by Walter Thompson-Hernández, NYTimes, November 2018.
- “Literacy, History, and African American Spirituals” by Karen Cook Bell, Black Perspectives, December 2018.
- “From A Mountain To A Little Light: Three Men Named John Work Traced A Century Of African American Music” by Colleen Phelps, 91 Classic, July 2020.
FILMS & SERIES
- “Jubilee Singers: Sacrifice and Glory,” PBS, prod. Llewellyn M. Smith.
- 12 Years a Slave, dir. Steve McQueen, 2h 14m, 2013.
- Consider these as companion pieces: Musicologist Guthrie P. Ramsey Jr.’s Gawker piece, “There Was Music in 12 Years a Slave? Yes. It Sounds Like "Get Lucky” and Ann Powers’ take for NPR, ‘12 Years A Slave' Is This Year's Best Film About Music.
PODCASTS & RADIO
- Wade in the Water: A 26-part audio documentary series detailing the history of American gospel music by NPR. ︎