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African American Spirituals: Cultural, Historical, and Musical Significance: Selected Print Resources

Print Resources

Allen, William Francis; Charles Pickward Ware, Lucy McKim Garrison. Slave Songs of the United States. Reprinted New York: Peter Smith, 1951, originally published 1867. 

Classic reference; one of the first to make the general public aware of the dynamic power of slave folk songs.

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Cone, James H. The Spirituals and the Blues: An Interpretation. Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1991; originally published 1972. 

A pre-eminent theologian’s interpretation of the religious significance of the spirituals tradition, and its relationship to the blues.

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Creel, Margaret Washington, “A Peculiar People”: Slave Religion and Community Culture Among the Gullahs. New York: New York University Press, 1988. 

The most comprehensive treatment available of the historical roots of the religious culture of the “Gullah” community: African Americans living in the sea islands off the coast of Georgia and South Carolina, where is it felt that many aspects of traditional African cultures are retained. Includes considerable attention to the role of traditional folk music. Prof. Washington is a Cornell University historian and an academic advisor to the Spirituals Project.

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Du Bois, W.E.B. “Of the Sorrow Songs.” In The Souls of Black Folk. New York: Bantam Books, 1989; originally published 1903. 

The classic essay on spirituals written at the turn of the twentieth century by the famous activist-sociologist DuBois. “Must” reading for anyone interested in the spirituals.

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Epstein, Dena J. Sinful Tunes and Spirituals: Black Folk Music to the Civil War. Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1977. 

The most comprehensive reference available on the musicological and historical evolution of Black folk music in America (including an extensive treatment of the spirituals) up to the time of the Civil War. Carefully researched and well documented, the book begins with an examination West African music, including an illuminating discussion of ways in which music traditions were transmitted from West Africa through the Middle Passage. The complex issue of African retentions is given extensive treatment throughout the text.

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Fisher, Miles Mark. Negro Slave Songs in the United States. New York: Russell & Russell, 1968; originally published 1953. 

One of the first scholarly attempts at a thorough socio-cultural analysis of the cultural functions of the spirituals and other slave songs.

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Print Resources

Guenther, Eileen. In Their Own Words: Slave Life and the Power of Spirituals. St. Louis: Morningstar Music Publishers, 2016. 

A comprehensive treatment of the cultural and theological framework and musicological structure of the spirituals, written by a seminary-based ethnomusicologist.

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Harding, Vincent. There is a River: The Black Struggle for Freedom in America. New York: Random House, 1981. 

Thoroughly documented, powerfully written account of the beginnings of the long, Black-led freedom movement, beginning with the Atlantic slave trade and the crucible of American chattel slavery.

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Johnson, James Weldon and J. Rosamond Johnson. The Books of American Negro Spirituals. New York: DaCapo Press, 1973; originally published as two separate volumes in 1925 and 1926. 

Collection of some of the most popular spirituals, with simple arrangements by J. Rosamond Johnson and Leonard Brown. A historic introduction by the famous poet James Weldon Johnson. Includes an excellent discussion of the appropriate uses of Black dialect in the singing of spirituals.

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Jones, Arthur. “Upon this Rock: The Foundational Influence of the Spirituals.” In Ferdinand Jones and Arthur Jones (eds.), The Triumph of the Soul: Cultural and Psychological Aspects of African American Music. Westport, CT: Praeger Publishers, 2001. 

This article provides a general introduction to the cultural and psychological functions of the spirituals as they have evolved from slavery times to the present.

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Jones, Arthur. Wade in the Water: The Wisdom of the Spirituals. Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1993, 1999. Revised and republished: Boulder, CO: Leave-a-Little-Room Foundation, 2005. 

Provides a comprehensive orientation to the cultural origins and functions of the spirituals, and an argument for why these songs and their teachings remain relevant in the twenty-first century. Comes packaged with a CD of selected songs recorded by the author and musical collaborators from The Spirituals Project organization.

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Levine, Lawrence. Black Culture and Black Consciousness. New York: Oxford Press, 1977. 

In this, one of the best sources on the “essence” of Black American cultural traditions, historian Lawrence Levine includes in this book an excellent analysis of the place of the spirituals tradition in Black culture and history.

Print Resources

Lovell, John Jr. Black Song, the Forge and the Flame: The Story of How the Afro-American Spiritual Was Hammered Out. New York: Paragon House Publishers, 1986; originally published 1972. 

This is widely considered the most important single reference on the social and cultural significance and influence of the spirituals. It provides a thorough, scholarly and comprehensive literary analysis of spirituals lyrics, places them in historical context, and includes an extensive section on the worldwide cultural influences of the spirituals.

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Raboteau, Albert J. Slave Religion: The “Invisible Institution” in the Antebellum South. New York: Oxford University Press, 1978. 

A classic book on slave religion by an important Princeton University historian. Eminently readable, it also includes a section on the history, evolution and religious functions of the spirituals during slavery.

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Stuckey, Sterling. Slave Culture: Nationalist Theory and the Foundations of Black America. New York: Oxford University Press, 1987.

Like Raboteau’s book on slave religion, this is another classic. Of particular importance to those interested in the spirituals is Stuckey’s analysis of the central role of the ring shout in the evolution of spirituals and their connection to nationalistically conscious elements of traditional African American culture.

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Thomas, André J. Way Over in Beulah Lan’: Understanding and Performing the Negro Spiritual. Dayton, OH: Heritage Music Press, 2007. 

The go-to manual on the spirituals, specifically addressed to choral conductors and performers, by a pre-eminent choral conductor, composer and educator. Provides a musical and cultural historical sketch of the spirituals, beginning with their origins in slavery, as well as a practical guide to the performing these songs in concert.

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Walker, Wyatt Tee. “Somebody’s Calling My Name”: Black Sacred Music and Social Change. Valley Forge, VA: Judson Press, 1979. 

An important book by one of the veterans of the 1960’s freedom movement in America. Focuses on the historical role of the spirituals and other Black sacred music genres in supporting progressive social action and social change.

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Ward, Andrew. Dark Midnight When I Rise: The Story of the Jubilee Singers Who Introduced the World to the Music of Black America. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2000. 

The companion to the PBS Documentary Film, “The Jubilee Singers: Sacrifice and Glory,” this book provides the first ever comprehensive story of the first Fisk Jubilee Singers, whose international tours in the 1870’s introduced the world to the spirituals and raised money to save Fisk University from bankruptcy. It is a wonderful book that goes way beyond the normal romantic recounting of the Jubilee Story to include details accounts of the singers’ battles with racism, exploitation and physical fatigue.

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