Old Negro spirituals, the raw, fervent plantation songs that helped African Americans through slavery, Emancipation and Jim Crow are finding a rebirth in the era of hip-hop. The same spirituals learned in Sunday school--"Let Us Break Bread Together," "Go Tell It on the Mountain," "He's Got the Whole World in His Hand," were born when slaves, newly converted to Christianity, took words from the Bible, and turned them into religious songs and church rituals that many black churches still use today.
These same spirituals were often carefully coded instructions to help escapees find their way to freedom. Spirituals like "Wade in the Water" and "Swing Low, Sweet Chariot" were really about escape on the Underground Railroad.
In recent years, two books, especially The Trouble I've Seen: The Big Book of Negro Spirituals by the late Bruno Chenu (Judson Press, June 2003, $20., ISBN 0-817-01448-9) and Deep River: Music and Memory in Harlem Renaissance Thought by Paul Allen Anderson (Duke University Press, June 2001, $79.95, ISBN 0-822-32577-2), are adding to the public discourse on the historical importance of elevating spirituals. Chenu, a French priest, was so smitten the first time he heard spirituals performed while visiting in the United States during the 1970s that he determined then that he would write a book on the subject.
Chenu, who died in 2003, not only examines the roots of American slavery, but also the African roots of the black church, music and the impact of the Bible on enslaved Africans. The exhaustive, well-researched book chronicles the origin of Negro spirituals from the slave trade during the 17th to 19th centuries, the biblical passages that slave owners used to justify slavery, the conversion of slaves to Christianity and their co-opting of Christianity to suit their spiritual needs. Chenu includes personal testimonies from slaves and former slaves. He contrasts the communal aspect of African music in which words are improvised to suit the situation, with the hymn sung from written words and scores. The book includes the words to 210 Negro spirituals out of the nearly 6,000 compiled by the Library of Congress. A CD of 18 of the most well-known spirituals, performed by The Moses Hogan Chorale, is padoged with the book. (The Library of Congress collection includes field recordings from as early at 1920 in its American Folk Life Center. Details are available on the library's Web site, www.loc.gov).
Anderson's book examines the role of African American folk music--spirituals, blues, jazz in the Harlem Renaissance debate about black authenticity and the music's impact on American culture. Post-slavery, black music was beginning to influence American forms of music. Debates arose between supporters of the newly assimilated Negro and a rural...