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Horace Clarence Boyer, Musicologist, on
The Negro Spiritual

Horace Clarence Boyer What are the Negro spirituals, and how did they come about?

Boyer : The Negro spiritual is a type of folksong, a religious folksong made up by the people for a particular need, and in their words, in their musical language, and used when they need it. When they don’t need it, they don’t use it. This is what the religious folksong is.

We are very concerned about the lack of secular songs from the slave era that we don’t have, which means that there’s a reason that we had religious folksongs. And that reason is, overseers felt that they could control the slaves more when they sang religious music. Once the slaves accepted Christianity, when they sang these spirituals, when they sang these songs, it actually put them in a mood to get work done, to pay attention, to synchronize labors, and therefore the overseer liked it, so that they encouraged the singing of this song. For example, where are the secular songs? As a matter of fact, in 1867, when the first collection of these songs were published, "Slave Songs of the United States", the authors complained about the poverty of secular music. So that these people were singing religious songs because they believed that somehow through religion they were going to be saved, they were going to be free.

So that the Negro spiritual itself is a religious folksong of the slave era, which expresses basically two thoughts. One is liberation, and the other is sorrow. For example, "Go Down Moses" is a sorrow song. "In that Great Getting Up Morning, Fare Ye Well" is a jubilee. That’s a liberation. We’re going to get out of this situation, one way or the other.

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