Spirituals are religious folk songs closely associated with the enslavement of African people in the American South. Frederick Douglass, the abolitionist and former slave, wrote about singing spirituals in My Bondage and My Freedom (1855): “A keen observer might have detected in our repeated singing of ‘O Canaan, sweet Canaan, I am bound for the land of Canaan,’ something more than a hope of reaching heaven. We meant to reach the North, and the North was our Canaan.” Similarly, during the Civil Rights Movement, spirituals as well as gospel songs supported the efforts of civil rights activists. These spirituals and gospel songs are hymns of uplift and protest as well as cries for salvation and freedom.
Mahalia Jackson, “We Shall Overcome,”
Attributed to Reverend Charles Albert Tindley, this gospel song turned Civil Rights anthem is a promise: “We shall overcome someday. Deep in my heart, I do believe.”
Mavis Staples, “Go Down Moses”
Harriet Tubman used spirituals such as “Go Down Moses” to signal enslaved laborers that she was in the area, and would help any who wanted to escape.
Fisk Jubilee Singers, “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot”
The legendary a cappella singing group performs this 19th-century African-American spiritual which was used as an alert on the Underground Railroad as well as a funeral song.
Topsy Chapman, “Roll, Jordan, Roll”
You may have heard this spiritual with its call and response form on 12 Years a Slave.
Sweet Honey in The Rock, “Wade in the Water”
“Wade in the Water” is another spiritual connected with the Underground Railroad. Check out this all-woman, African-American a cappella ensemble singing another spiritual connected with the Underground Railroad.
PJ Harvey, “River Anacostia”
PJ Harvey inserts the spiritual “Wade in the Water” into this earthly song to evoke the toxicity of the river flowing through the African American neighborhoods of Washington, DC.
Dolly Parton, “Go Tell it on the Mountain”
This African-American spiritual was compiled by John Wesley Work, Jr., an ethnomusicologist who set out to document the African American folk culture in the Mississippi Delta. The song has been sung and recorded by numerous gospel and secular performers because of its call for freedom.
Eartha Kitt, “Steal Away”
Legendary actress, singer, and activist Eartha Kitt wasn’t known for singing spirituals, though this recording reminds us that she could’ve been.
Dori Freeman, “Over There”
Dori Freeman grew up in the Appalachian town of Galax, Virginia, home to an annual fiddle contest and known for its love of old-time music. While Freeman typically takes a more modern approach with her brand of Appalachian music, she keeps it traditional with this jaunty gospel song.
Sister Rosetta Tharpe, “I Ain’t Gonna Study War No More (Down by the Riverside)”
This spiritual has roots in the antebellum period. It was first published in 1918 in Plantation Melodies: A collection of Modern, Popular and Old-time Negro-Songs. Because of its pacifistic imagery, the song is a popular an anti-war protest song.
Rising Appalachia, “I’ll Fly Away”
In 1943, Willis James, an ethnomusicologist, made a field recording of the Lincoln Park Singers performing “I’ll fly away,” which was composed by Albert E. Brumley, a white man. NPR debated which version of “I’ll Fly Away” was the best. We chose one that is not on their list, but it should be.
Big Mama Thornton, “Oh, Happy Day”
The cheery tune of deliverance and salvation rang out against the backdrop of the Vietnam War and the Civil Rights Movement.