Religious Music: The African Roots


Music and religion in Africa act as a singular enterprise. Between the two, there is no separation of sacred, secular, music, vocals, or instruments. Often, religious music incorporates call and response patterns as well as improvisation. Spirit possession commonly occurs during a sacred song while at the same time dancing becomes trance-like. Drums play a central role in the both the song and dance. Music reflects the beliefs of the community, sends prayers to particular gods of worship and calls on spirits to influence personal actions. Religion establishes a code of African ethics to define the community and its actions.


A New Community, a New Music, a New Religion


Gullah provides one of the clearest examples of African American syncretism and an original interpretation of religion with the
combination of spirituality with communal harmony, solidarity, and accountability. Methodist missionaries were the first to introduce Christianity to African Americans during slavery. Gullahs converted Christianity into their African world view and used the new religion to justify oppressive forces, stimulate the community culture, and focus the vision of freedom. Methodist influences continued through 1844 and then Baptist faith took over as the main contributor to Gullah religion.


Preaching and praying done in plantation houses led to the development of praise houses. Praise houses function both as a place of worship and as a meeting area.

Spirituals began in the praise houses. In Africa, spirituals were a means to continue the oral history, and spirituals developed within the Gullah culture as a confirmation of acceptance in Christian churches. Through the singing of spirituals, slaves found an avenue to release feelings of joy, hardship, and hope. Spirituals often had double meanings, and much like the transmission of oral histories in Africa, they acted as ways for slaves to communicate with each other.

Spirituals vary widely from region to region but the basic structure remains the same regardless of the geographic location. An "anthem" of the Gullah people is New Jerusalem.

Along with spirituals, shouts also emerged in the Praise Houses. Shouts begin slowly with the shuffling of feet and clapping of hands (but the feet never cross because that was seen as dancing, which was forbidden within the church). Then the tempo picks up and during the dance, the shouters often become possessed and drop to the floor in exhaustion.

Since most Christian churches forbade the use of drumming, slaves incorporated the use of hand clapping and feet stomping in order to keep musical time. This often intricate hand clapping and stomping distinguishes Gullah music and laid the roots for modern African American music.

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From Gullah to Freedom Movements


The song "We Shall Overcome" relates back to Gullah and slave spirituals. The song can now be found in many different versions, but originally the song was entitled "I Will Overcome." "I Will Overcome," also known as "I Will Be Alright" started to evolve around the 19th century. The song talks of victory in competition with a new friend. The song originated outside of Charleston on John's Island, S.C. The version "We Shall Overcome" was first used in 1945 by striking tobacco workers in Charleston.

We Shall Overcome




Out of Slavery and into the City: Charleston

What are these songs, and
What do they mean? I know
little of music and can say
nothing in technical phrase,
but I know of something of
men, and knowing them, I
know that these songs are the
articulate message of the
slave to the world.

W.E.B. DuBois

At the end of slavery, African Americans made an effort to sever ties with the white churches, and new churches began to develop in Charleston, including the Morris Brown A.M.E. At this time, Baptist and Methodist religions were the most popular among African Americans. It is in these churches that the influence of hymn-lining continues. The hymn-liners compose as they go and hold the responsibility for the creation of spirituals that exist today. At this time of movement, hymns began emphasis social concerns, combining past slave spirituals with the songs developing out of freedom and its own hardships.

Following emancipation some people refused to sing spirituals because they reminded them of slavery. Spirituals became more accepted after they began to more closely resemble European music. The new spirituals were neither African or European. When the spirituals began to lose their authentic form, and became more like anthems, and concert pieces. Spirituals became more refined to be sung in large concert audiences. While the authentic spiritual did not disappear it lost its influence to the more mainstream form of music and religious song.

The Jenkins Orphanage Band members attribute much of their early training to their experience in the church. The first songs performed by the band were spirituals. Each spring the band would travel through the North and end their tour in New York at the First Abyssinian Baptist Church.

This movement to the city transformed and changed the role of religious music by allowing others to view it as unique. At the same time, spirituals and other religious music came to embody a truly African American sound.


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