Spirituals (also known as Negro spirituals, African American spirituals, Black spirituals, or spiritual music) is a genre of Christian music that is associated with African Americans, which merged sub-Saharan African cultural heritage with the experiences of being held in bondage in slavery, at first during the transatlantic slave trade and for centuries afterwards, through the domestic slave trade. Spirituals encompass the “sing songs,” work songs, and plantation songs that evolved into the blues and gospel songs in church. In the nineteenth century, the word “spirituals” referred to all these subcategories of folk songs. While they were often rooted in biblical stories, they also described the extreme hardships endured by African Americans who were enslaved from the 17th century until the 1860s, the emancipation altering mainly the nature (but not continuation) of slavery for many. Many new derivative music genres such as the blues emerged from the spirituals songcraft.Prior to the end of the US Civil War and emancipation, spirituals were originally an oral tradition passed from one slave generation to the next. Biblical stories were memorized then translated into song. Following emancipation, the lyrics of spirituals were published in printed form. Ensembles such as the Fisk Jubilee Singers—established in 1871—popularized spirituals, bringing them to a wider, even international, audience.

At first, major recording studios were only recording white musicians performing spirituals and their derivatives. That changed with Mamie Smith’s commercial success in 1920. Starting in the 1920s, the commercial recording industry increased the audience for the spirituals and their derivatives.

Black composers, Harry Burleigh and R. Nathaniel Dett, created a “new repertoire for the concert stage” by applying their Western classical education to the spirituals. While the spirituals were created by a “circumscribed community of people in bondage,” over time they became known as the first “signature” music of the United States.

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