Sandra Graham, Associate Professor of Ethnomusicology, University of California, Davis

"Re-presenting Negro Spirituals in Postbellum Culture"

The Negro spiritual genre, a mode of religious expression that arose in the early nineteenth-century United States, changed shape after the Civil War, largely because the songs were adapted for entertainment and commercial purposes. Before and during the war, folk spirituals generally were performed privately among blacks and were a form of scripture, in the sense that they were a community-building and –maintaining phenomenon.  In the postbellum period, however, the relationship between spirituals and black America changed quite profoundly as the tunes became spectacle for white viewers and lucrative for performers.

Prof. Graham detailed the attributes of pre-war Negro spirituals, including their responsorial structure, variable rhyme schemes, improvisation, and internal refrains. She played for us a clip of “Little David, Play on Your Harp” by Bessie Jones and the Georgia Sea Islanders, who instantiate this approach to spiritual performance (a solo recording of Jones is available for free at http://bullhead.us/mp3/LittleDavid.mp3).  Because the songs were orally transmitted, there was no orthodoxy in their performance.

Though some abolitionists began compiling Negro spirituals in the postbellum period, the musical form did not gain a wide white audience until the advent of the Jubilee Singers, a student group out of Fisk University in Nashville. Prof. Graham noted that the name of the group derived from Leviticus, in which jubilee years are times when debts are forgiven and laborers freed. During the group’s existence from 1871 to 1878, they performed domestically and in Europe, earning considerable sums.

The Fisk singers’ success inspired other traveling concert groups, and a particular aesthetic for concert Negro spirituals. Prof. Graham describes this sound as both “familiar and exotic”—it was, in other words, somewhat domesticated. The defining characteristics of antebellum spirituals changed markedly. These concert spirituals had a more homogeneous sound, striving for absolute pitch instead of what Graham called “pitch area,” in which singers like the Sea Islanders approximated the tones of musical notes. Concert spirituals were also rehearsed, virtually eliminating impromptu creativity. They employed standard American English diction and discouraged body movement. Whereas insider Negro spirituals worked on a scale of do-re-mi…so-la, excluding the notes fa, ti, and high do, concert spirituals singers introduced the missing notes in conformity with Western musical principles. (A 1912 recording of a Fisk Jubilee Singers quartet is available at http://cylinders.library.ucsb.edu/mp3s/2000/2166/cusb-cyl2166d.mp3)

The Fisk student singers had come to the university essentially to become socially white, but Graham suggests that their audiences inevitably heard them through the trope of minstrelsy, the dominant type of racialized performance at the time. In fact, their style of spirituals singing was parodied, a fact that Prof. Graham insists is very significant for the popularization of spirituals despite the obvious disparaging edge to minstrel caricaturing. This “commercial spiritual” genre tended to idealize plantation-based Southern life quite nostalgically, and black performers became more popular than their white (black-face) counterparts for reliving this invented Old South.

Prof. Graham has herself counted over five hundred “minstrelized” spirituals written by both blacks and whites between 1873 and 1900. She does note, however, some important differences based on the racial backgrounds of their composers. First, white commercial spiritual writers tended to use pejorative terms and imagery in their compositions; unsurprisingly, black composers favored sincerity and frank depictions of that time period in American history.

In closing, Prof. Graham distinguished concert spirituals from their commercial adaptations. While groups like the Jubilee singers did perform for profit, the undertaking was a communal one and stimulated what Graham calls “racial uplift.” Commercial spirituals, on the other hand, were written to be sung individually in a comedic, showy context and for private gain. She also notes the differing audiences for the two types of postbellum spirituals: concerts were attended largely by the upper and middle classes whereas the minstrelized shows attracted mostly working-class men, at least in the beginning. Gospel music was a further development in the early twentieth century that accompanied the rise of black churches and also tended to feature themes and scriptural referents from the New Testament rather than the Hebrew Bible allusions featured in spirituals.
Questions for further discussion:

At the time of this shift into particularly post-war iterations of spirituals, the songs were also collected into songbooks. The music was then sold, implying that the performances could be replicated. What effects did codification have on forms of non-dominant expressivity?


In what sense might antebellum and concert spirituals each be understood as scriptures? Moreover, can commercial spirituals be classified as scriptures?


Does the marketing of spirituals—or of any form of religious communication or scriptures—change their political functions?


What role do parodies of scriptural expressivities, such as minstrelized Negro spirituals, play in social formation, a key component of the cultural phenomenon we refer to as “scriptures”?


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