Best definition of spirituals came with W. E. B. Du Bois 'The souls of Black Folk': 'The Negro folk song the rhythmic cry of a slave stands today not simply as the soul American music, but as the most beautiful expedition of human experience born this side of the seas. It has been neglected, it has been, and is, half despised, and above all it has been persistently mistaken and misunderstood; but notwithstanding, it still remains as the singular spiritual heritage of the nation and the greatest gift of the Negro people.'
Today we think about spirituals as if it is an art form, like classical music or jazz. But it is not. It was a way for the slaves to communicate with one another, a way to heal their pain, record their history. It was a way to tell a story for those who were not allowed to speak their language, those had to be silent and quiet all the time and were forbidden to express their emotions. In Africa the foundation for the music was the beat of the drums. The beat by itself could tell people from Africa a story (if someone was sick, if someone is getting married etc). In America the drums were not an option for them either. But they found a way they could express the pain that they were feeling through a moan and a groan. And the substitute for the drum rhythm was the beat of their hearts transferred down to their heels (stomping).
A collective term The Underground Railroad stands for the underground resistance that helped slaves escape by foot at night to the free land in Northern states and Canada around 1800 to 1860. Slaves used to encode instructions for escape in their songs. For example ' The Drinking Gourd ' song was used to encode escape instructions and a map. These directions then enabled fleeing slaves to make their way north to the Ohio River and freedom. The 'drinking gourd' refers to the hollowed out gourd used by slaves as a water dipper. But here it is used as a code name for the Big Dipper star formation, which points to Polaris and North. The line 'The dead trees show the way' referrs to the trees and other landmarks near the Tombigbee river marked with charcoal or mud of the outline of a human left foot and a round spot in place of the right foot by Peg Leg Joe. And so on and so on.
There were also Christian songs that expressed the African American religious resistance to the inhuman conditions of slavery. They were inspired by black preachers’ messages or in individual contemplation of the Bible stories heard at home and at work. There are clear heroes of some spirituals: Moses and Daniel, for example. And there are also profoundly important symbols, such as the river of Jordan. The American theologian James Cone suggests that there are two basic meanings of the Jordan River as a symbol in African American spirituals. First, the Jordan represented a death that was typically seen as liberation from the harsh realities of slave life. Second, the Jordan could also represent the border between slavery and freedom and so the 'other side of the Jordan' suggests the Northern states, and thus freedom:
I’ll meet you in the morning
when you reach the promised land
on the other side of the Jordan
for I’m bound for the promised land.
'Wade in the Water' was used to tell slaves to get into the water to avoid being seen and make it through. This is Also an example of a map song where directions are coded into the lyrics.
African-American spirituals deeply influenced American music. They changed over time and were the basis for blues, Gospel music, jazz and even had influence on rock'n'roll, soul, reggae and hip-hop.