Black Spirituals - White Spirituals

by Arnold Nelson


A little history of Black and White Spirituals.

Have you ever heard the term black spirituals? When I was growing up they were called Negro spirituals. We are not supposed to use the word Negro anymore so they are referred to as black spirituals. Black spirituals are the songs of the slaves. They are the songs slaves sang as they worked in the fields. This slaves had a very hard burden and singing made their burden a little bit easier. Someone would start singing a song. Then someone else would sing another verse. Sometimes two or three people would get together and sing a verse. If someone wanted to sing a verse and they couldn't remember the words, they made up the words they went along. That is why so many of the black spirituals have as many 60 or 70 verses. After the slaves were freed there were black people that went around and tried to collect all the spirituals. They collected most of them but there are a large number that got lost because they were never written down. Some of the spirituals we still sing today like, Do Lord, Swing Low Sweet Chariot, Steal Away to Jesus, Go Tell it on the Mountain, and Standing in the Need of Prayer.

There is another term called white spirituals. White spirituals are songs written by white people using black music. There are not very many of them, in fact, there is only one that I know of that ever became famous. It is called Amazing Grace. It was written by a man named John Newton. John Newton was a captain of the slave ship. He bought slaves in Africa and sailed across Atlantic. He sold the slaves in the United States. One time while he was crossing the Atlantic he got caught in a bad storm. He got scared and he thought he would lose his ship. So he got down on his knees and he prayed to God. He had almost forgotten about God until that day. While he was on his knees praying to God to save the ship, he was promising all kinds of things like you or I do when we get scared. Well the storm blew itself out. John never forgot the promises he made to God for saving a ship. He became much nicer to the slaves. A few year later he gave up to slave business and went back to England and married his childhood sweetheart. He became a priest and he wrote several hymns, his most famous is Amazing Grace. We are not sure where the first music came from for Amazing Grace. The experts think that John Newton probably heard it coming up from the hull of the ship, coming from the slaves he was carrying across the ocean. He wrote six verses, in most hymnals knows they only have three or four of his verses. Then there's the last first that says it was written by anonymous. It goes like this.

When we've been there,

Ten thousand years.

Bright shining as the sun.

We've no less days to sing,

God praise.

Then when we first begun.

I was curious about that verse so I did some research and this is what I found. There was a lady named Harriet Beecher Stowe. She wrote a book called "Uncle Tom's Cabin" in 1851. She was very antislavery and her book did a lot to end slavery in this country. Her book was the second biggest seller of the 19th century. The only book that sold more was the Bible.

Now in this book uncle Tom and his family were owned by a pretty nice slave owner. The problem was the slave owner was in debt and only way he can hang on to most of what he had was to sell some slaves, so he did. Uncle Tom and the slave procurer headed down the river so that he could be sold in the South for more money. While they were going down the river uncle Tom made friends with the little girl about five years old. She was going down the river with her father. The little girl got careless and fell off the ship. Uncle Tom jumped in the water and save her. The little girl talked her father into buying uncle Tom. The little girl's name was Eva. When they got to Eva's house there were other slaves. Eva loved all the slaves but I think she loved uncle Tom the best. A few years later Eva got very sick and she knew she was going to die. Just before she died she had her hair cut off and gave each of the slaves a lock of her hair so they would remember her. After Eva died uncle Tom sang the last 2 verses of Amazing Grace he also sang one more verse. The verse I printed above. When uncle Tom's cabin became popular two things happened. First it helped to end slavery in this country. Second the last first got attached to Amazing Grace. It is still attached to Amazing Grace today. We still do not know who wrote it but we know where it came from. It came from a black's spiritual called "Jerusalem My Happy Home.

I saw something written about Amazing Grace recently. This Article said a man named John P. Rees wrote the last verse. This bothered me so I checked into it. And this is what I found. There are people who say John P. Rees wrote it, but it has been proven to be a party of "Jerusalem My Happy Home" as early as 1790 which is 10 years before John P. Rees was born. So I still believe my findings are correct.

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