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).