"The musical tradition of Charleston lies in the African American community." - Historian Nick Butler

During Slavery, religious services were the only time that slaves in the Carolina low country and around America, could come together in large groups. In praise houses like the one pictured below, African Americans could sing, dance and worship without the presence of whites. During meetings, slaves practiced not only their Christianity, but also continued their African traditions by infusing African elements into their religious music. From this mixture, slaves developed a new form of music with heavy rhythmic patterns and Christian beliefs. Known as Spirituals, this genre contained themes of oppression, hope, community and Christianity.

"The All Saints slaves also sang- their secular songs as well as their spirituals remaining quite close to West African singing style, their words making incisive comments on the world of the rice plantations. (Charles Joyner, Down By the Riverside)"

Praise House on St. Helena's Island
Inside of the Praise House

Although spirituals contained many African characteristics, they are not solely a continuance of African traditions in America. Combined with the American experience of bondage and images of hope and community, slaves created a creolized sound unique to their past in Africa and their present in America.

Listen to "Adam in the Garden" by Willis Proctor and group, recorded on the Sea Islands, 1959.

"There is a haunting quality about the spirituals that partly echoes African continuities in their music and performance style and partly reflects the trails and suffering, the sorrows and tribulations of life in bondage. Despite their inevitable sadness, however, the spirituals were also songs of hope and of affirmation" (Charles Joyner, 164).

Recently, many groups have emerged that aim to preserve and actively continue the tradition of spirituals. Some of these groups organize out of the African American community, while others develop outside of that community. Alphonso Brown acts as one of the leaders and members of the Mt. Zion Spiritual Singers, a group that travels around the U.S. singing traditional songs in their traditional fashion (unrehearsed and un-arranged). He identifies himself as being Gullah and sees singing spirituals as continuing the tradition that his ancestors once began. Another spirituals group, one of the first singing groups to appear, was the Society for the preservation of Negro Spirituals. This all white group consisted of upper-class Charlestonians who were raised by Gullah servants. The Society felt that these African-Americans lacked the means to preserve their heritage, and took it upon themselves to do it for them. Drastically different in presentation and approach to preservation, both groups continue the practice of spirituals. Sounds and performances of these songs differ from traditional formats because of the influence of commercialization. Whereas spiritual singers once focused on including the entire audience in their performances, they now concentrate on theatricality and costuming. This raises many questions of cultural authenticity.

Listen to Marlena Smalls and the Hallelujah Singers, a contemporary, commercial group made up of St. Helena, SC Gullah, sing "Please Lordy".