In melodies of simple yet profound beauty, in lyrics of vivid images, and in rhythms drawn from their homeland, the songs that came to be known as spirituals give voice to the suffering and hope of an enslaved people. This music expresses a suffering of body, mind, and spirit, a protest against injustice, a hope for freedom, and a conviction of worth despite all afflictions. At the same time, it embodies the beauty of the human soul beneath and beyond all cruelty. Often sung in secret gatherings, the spirituals enabled those enslaved to express an interior soul space that the harshness of slave owners and slave drivers could not reach. These songs ultimately became a source of inspiration and courage as that inner spirit of freedom became outwardly realized in the movement known as the Underground Railroad.
This paper will explore themes of word, melody, and rhythm within the spirituals as they bear witness then and now to the capacity of music to express and sustain the depth, beauty, and power of the human spirit. If we listen carefully, we may hear in the spirituals a voice of universal significance; a voice that reaches beyond all culture, race, gender – beyond all differences – to the core of our shared humanity.