spiritual, a religious folk song of American origin, particularly associated with African-American Protestants of the southern United States. The African-American spiritual, characterized by syncopation, polyrhythmic structure, and the pentatonic scale of five whole tones, is, above all, a deeply emotional song. The words are most often related to biblical passages, but the predominant effect is of patient, profound melancholy. The spiritual is directly related to the sorrow songs that were the source material of the blues (see jazz), and a number of more joyous spirituals influenced the content of gospel songs (see gospel music).

Beginning in the late 19th cent., when a celebrated chorus from Fisk Univ. traveled throughout the United States and abroad, wide attention was given to the spirituals of American blacks. This body of song was long thought to be the only original folk music of the United States, and research into its origin centered mainly on the nature and extent of its African ancestry. Because slaves were brought to the United States from many parts of Africa, no single African musical source is clear. Elements that African music and American black spirituals have in common include syncopation, polyrhythmic structure, the pentatonic scale, and a responsive rendition of text. Audience participation increased the improvisatory nature of the spirituals, with the result that tens and even hundreds of versions of a single text idea exist.

Early in the 20th cent., Cecil Sharp explored the extent of American folk-song literature, much of which he demonstrated to be of British ancestry. After that discovery, G. P. Jackson traced the considerable influence of revivalist and evangelist songs from the early 19th-century camp meetings of the Southern white population. Jackson claimed, using hundreds of comparative examples, that many black spirituals were adapted from or inspired by these white spirituals. African musical traditions were apparently amalgamated with the religious songs of the white South, which had many sources, to produce a form of folk music that was distinctly black in character.

Collections and arrangements of spirituals have been made by R. Johnson and J. W. Johnson, R. N. Dett, G. L. White, J. A. Lomax and A. Lomax, R. Hayes, and others. See also G. P. Jackson, White Spirituals in the Southern Uplands (1933) and Spiritual Folk-Songs of Early America (1937); G. P. Jackson, White and Negro Spirituals (1943); L. Jones, Blues People (1963); J. Cone, The Spirituals and the Blues (1980).

The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright© 2014, The Columbia University Press.

Spirituals: Selected full-text books and articles

Choral Arrangements of the African-American Spirituals: Historical Overview and Annotated Listings
Patricia Johnson Trice.
Greenwood Press, 1998
An Index to African-American Spirituals for the Solo Voice
François Clemmons; Kathleen A. Abromeit.
Greenwood Press, 1999
Deep River: Reflections on the Religious Insight of Certain of the Negro Spirituals
Howard Thurman; Elizabeth Orton Jones.
Harper & Brothers, 1955
African-American Traditions in Song, Sermon, Tale, and Dance, 1600s-1920: An Annotated Bibliography of Literature, Collections, and Artworks
Eileen Southern; Josephine Wright.
Greenwood Press, 1990
The Music and Dance of the World's Religions: A Comprehensive, Annotated Bibliography of Materials in the English Language
E. Gardner Rust.
Greenwood Press, 1996
Honoring the Ancestors: An African Cultural Interpretation of Black Religion and Literature
Donald H. Matthews.
Oxford University Press, 1998
Old Ship of Zion: The Afro-Baptist Ritual in the African Diaspora
Walter F. Pitts.
Oxford University Press, 1996
Our Living Traditions: An Introduction to American Folklore
Tristram Potter Coffin.
Basic Books, 1968
Librarian’s tip: Chap. 10 "The Glory Songs of the Lord"
Rhythm and Resistance: Explorations in the Political Uses of Popular Music
Ray Pratt.
Praeger, 1990
Librarian’s tip: Chap. 3 "The Spirituals, Gospel, and Resistance"
Theological Music: Introduction to Theomusicology
Jon Michael Spencer.
Greenwood Press, 1991
Librarian’s tip: "The Sacred" begins on p. 6
The Music Lover's Handbook
Elie Siegmeister.
William Morrow, 1943
Librarian’s tip: "Morton Gould: Spirituals for Orchestra" begins on p. 234
Spiritual Interrogations: Culture, Gender, and Community in Early African American Women's Writing
Katherine Clay Bassard.
Princeton University Press, 1999
Culture on the Margins: The Black Spiritual and the Rise of American Cultural Interpretation
Jon Cruz.
Princeton University Press, 1999
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