The Protest Legacy of African American Spirituals, Part 2

The Protest Legacy of African American Spirituals, Part 2
Published: Feb 20, 2022
In Part 1 of this two-part essay, sociologist of music Stephen Richer emphasized the protest dimension of slave-era spirituals and their four major musical characteristics: antiphony (call and response), improvisation, an emphasis on ‘blue' notes, and polyrhythmic beats. In this second part, he focuses on the period following emancipation when spirituals continued to permeate African American resistance through music. In the 20th century the heritage of spirituals had an incalculable effect on the civil rights movement and on the development of blues, jazz and rap.

MLK singing, journal of wild culture ©2022.jpg

"They give the people new courage and a sense of unity." said Martin Luther King. "I think they keep alive a faith, a radiant hope, in the future, particularly in our most trying hours.” Photo by Bob Fitch. [o]



Spirituals occupied a dominant place during the civil rights movement and emerged in two forms: First, they were sung in their original form, with little or no modification. Not surprisingly, the songs most often sung were those with strong freedom imagery, such as ‘Go Down Moses,’ ‘Swing Low Sweet Chariot,’ ‘Didn’t my Lord Deliver Daniel,’ ‘Michael Row the Boat Ashore’ and ‘Many Thousands Gone.’ Second, some were modified extensively to reflect the reality of continued racial oppression in the fifties and sixties. For example, new verses were added that referred to contemporary civil rights issues. Since people already knew the original spirituals (from singing in churches and other places), the transition to the modified versions was relatively seamless. Two examples of spirituals which underwent such modification are 'Joshua Fit the Battle of Jericho' and 'I Shall Not Be Moved.'


It was a powerful way of instilling a sense of community and reinforcing collective identification with the movement’s objectives.


Here is the chorus and a verse of 'Joshua Fit the Battle of Jericho'

Joshua fit the battle of Jericho, Jericho, Jericho,
Joshua fit the battle of Jericho,
And the walls came tumbling down.
You may talk about the men of Gideon,
You may talk about the men of Saul,
But there’s none like the good old Joshua,
At the battle of Jericho.

In 1965, there were three voting rights marches from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama. The most violent was on March 7 and it culminated in the beating of marchers by State troopers, henceforth known as 'Bloody Sunday.' During this period, 'Joshua fit the Battle of Jericho' was changed to 'Marchin’ Round Selma like Jericho':

Marchin round Selma like Jericho, Jericho, Jericho,
Marchin’ round Selma like Jericho,
Segregation walls must fall.
Look at the people answering the freedom fighters’ call
Black, brown and white all say segregation walls must fall.

‘I Shall Not Be Moved,’ based on Jeremiah 17: 7-8, is a spiritual that asserts an unwavering faith in God: “Blessed is the man that trusteth in the Lord….For he shall be as a tree planted by the waters.” The chorus: “I shall not, I shall not be moved (x2) / Just like a tree planted by the water / I shall not be moved.”

Adopted by both the labour and civil rights movements, the lyrics were modified to suit their needs; the major changes being the substitution of “we” for “I” in the chorus, reflecting collective resistance — and freedom verses replacing the faith-based verses of the original. Like the spiritual from which it derived, ‘We Shall Not Be Moved’ is typically sung as call and response. Here is the version by Mavis Staples, who was a major voice of the civil rights movement.



During the civil rights movement these and other songs were sung in marches and rallies by large groups of people in a wide variety of venues, including government malls, city streets and squares, and university campuses. A defining element of these events was group singing, and much of it was planned in advance and orchestrated on site by the organizers. This process was a powerful way of instilling a sense of community and reinforcing collective identification with the movement’s objectives. [For more on group singing in political action, see my article ‘Tens Songs That Made a Difference.’]  


Both blues and jazz owe a great debt to spirituals. Indeed, the early blues and jazz musicians were largely the children or grandchildren of slaves, so they were intimately familiar with the spiritual genre. Not surprisingly, they borrowed extensively from the structure of spirituals, including one or more of the four elements mentioned earlier. In jazz and blues, however, the elements were often modified. In jazz, for example, antiphony typically takes the form of an instrument-to-instrument call and response, rather than the caller-group exchange characteristic of vocal spirituals.

It can be argued that the element inherited virtually intact by jazz and blues from spirituals is the 'blue note': the flattening of one or more key notes in a major scale (e.g., In the key of C, Eb instead of E and Gb instead of G.). This musical disc(h)ord was meant to mirror the discord in life itself – the pain of longing, loss, and despair. Further, spirituals were typically unaccompanied a capella, whereas the availability to blues and jazz musicians of a wide variety of instruments allowed the development of infinite ways of expressing sadness.

Using bending and portamento sliding notes, instrumentalists were able to mimic vocal lamentation. This also opened the door to the reverse effect: using the human voice to replicate the expressive tonal qualities of the instruments. A classic example is the development of ‘scat singing,’ which was a continuation of the tradition of vocal improvisation in the early spirituals. Scat consists of syllables that echoed, in onomatopoeic fashion, the melody of a piece, particularly the percussive aspect; often they sounded like mere nonsense. A classic example is Louis Armstrong’s 1926 recording of  “Heebie Jeebies”, the middle of which has Armstrong scatting rather than singing the lyrics.



Both blues and jazz followed the spiritual in protesting racial oppression. Two blues musicians whose contributions to the civil rights movement are not given enough attention are Josh White and J.B. Lenoir.

Josh White was born in South Carolina in 1914. He was a prolific protest singer, writing and singing songs which drew attention to the structured inequality facing African Americans. He joined the Almanac Singers, a leftist-inspired group founded by Pete Seeger and Lee Hays, and, like these two figures, found himself the victim of the McCarthyist blacklist in the early 1950s. Before that he was a regular visitor at the White House when Franklin D. Roosevelt was in office, and particularly important to Eleanor Roosevelt. In 1941, White released the album “Southern Exposure: An Album of Jim Crow Blues”, which contained several anti-segregation songs, perhaps the most influential of which was “Uncle Sam Says.” This song decried the obstacles blacks experienced in rising through the ranks in the armed forces.



Born in Mississippi in 1929, J.B. Lenoir was prominent in the Chicago blues scene and used his celebrity status to contribute significantly to the Civil Rights Movement. In 1966, three years after the KKK bombing of a Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama, killing four young girls, Lenoir released “Alabama Blues.” The combination of his striking voice, the syncopated rhythm and percussive improvisation on the guitar provided a nuanced condemnation of life in Alabama in the sixties.




Like White and Lenoir, there were many jazz artists who used their talent and prominence as platforms for protest. In 1957, Governor Orval Faubus of Arkansas mobilized the national guard to prevent nine black teenagers from entering Little Rock High School. Charles Mingus, a brilliant double bassist, composer, and bandleader responded with 'Fables of Faubus,' an intricate, polyrhythmic cacophony hurled at the governor. It was full of improvised bent and sliding notes and what appear to be instrumentally created animal sounds mocking Faubus. Although he wrote accompanying lyrics, they were censored by Columbia Records and rarely appear in available versions. They are replicated below. (The lyrics were written in call and response format, with Mingus and drummer Dannie Richmond engaging in a biting question/answer put-down of the governor.)

Fables of Faubus

Oh, Lord, don't let 'em shoot us!

Oh, Lord, don't let 'em stab us!

Oh, Lord, no more swastikas!

Oh, Lord, no more Ku Klux Klan!

Name me someone who's ridiculous, Dannie.

Governor Faubus . . . why is he so sick and ridiculous?

He won't permit integrated schools. Then he's a fool! Boo!

Nazi Fascist supremecists! Boo! Ku Klux Klan (with your Jim Crow plan).

Name me a handful that's ridiculous, Dannie Richmond.

Faubus, Rockefeller, Eisenhower.

Why are they so sick and ridiculous?

Two, four, six, eight: They brainwash and teach you hate.

H-E-L-L-O, Hello.



Nina Simone was a musical prodigy, playing classical piano as a child. Despite her talent and an apparently flawless audition to get into the prestigious Curtis Institute of Music, she was denied entry, which she suspected was because of her race, which laid the groundwork for her later involvement in issues of civil rights. Classical music’s loss was jazz’s gain, as she became one of the most innovative of jazz singers, fusing gospel and pop with her early classical training.

Before 1964, politics were not really evident in her songs, but the 1963 murder of civil rights activist Medgar Evers and the Birmingham bombing the same year changed this. The 1964 album, Nina Simone in Concert, included the song 'Mississippi Goddamn.' In it she rails against the prevalent idea at the time that African Americans and civil rights activists should “go slow” and seek incremental change. In her words, “to do things gradually would bring more tragedy.”

There are two major parts to the song: slavery imagery, in which she laments the slow pace of abolition (“Washing the windows, do it slow, / Picking the cotton, do it slow”); and civil rights imagery, where she again bemoans the slow pace of change (“Desegregation, do it slow, / Mass participation, do it slow”, / Reunification, do it slow”).

Over time, Simone took an increasingly hard line in her concerts, at times explicitly advocating violent revolution and the hope that African Americans would ultimately form a separate state. ‘Mississippi Goddamn’ is hypnotic and full of fury and outrage — one of the most emotionally charged songs of the civil rights movement.



In the late 70’s in New York City, a new cultural form was born: hip hop. Although the origin of the term is unclear, in its widest sense it refers to a multi-dimensional life style, including dance, new linguistic forms (rooted in Ebonics),  graffiti art, and a vocal style called 'rapping.' The term derives from the African American expression to 'rap' or converse. In its early days, it was typically carried out by a performer improvising words to an ever-evolving rhythmic structure and unaccompanied, except perhaps for the beat of a drum or other background percussive instruments, and therefore shares many defining elements of the early spirituals.

The spiritual influence is also evident in the use of rap as an improvised medium of protest. One of the first explicitly political rap creations was The Message, released in 1982 by Grandmaster and the Furious Five. The song forcefully decries inner city black poverty (“Rats in the front room, roaches in the back”) and ends with a scene of arbitrary police arrest.

In the decades since, indictments of racial inequality became the central political themes upon which rappers participated in a powerful discourse through the channels of popular music. As an example, one of the most significant tracks of this type is 'I am George Floyd' by Lil B in 2020. “I am George Floyd” embraces the idea that, due to police racial profiling and acts of brutality, all African Americans are subjected to the same state of precarity as Floyd was — and could suffer the same fate at any moment, as did Ahmaud Arbery. It also reinforces the notion that all blacks identify with Floyd and share the anguish he experienced. The song offers a crescendo of names of those who fell victim to arbitrary arrest and police violence, including Trayvon Martin, Eric Garner, Tanisha Anderson, and Philando Castile.



One aspect of rap which does not come full circle is in the performance genre. Rap is typically a stage-performance genre involving one singer before a largely non-participative audience. Spirituals engaged everyone in the singing, blurring the distinction between audience and performer. This continued in the labour and the civil rights movements where spirituals and modified versions of them were sung by large numbers during marches and rallies, often in call and response. Some of the seminal events of the civil rights movement, such as the Selma to Montgomery marches, and the March on Washington, cannot be fully understood without the allusion to songs like “This Little Light of Mine” and “We Shall Overcome.” Such songs, often termed 'anthems' because of their widespread adoption,  reinforced the movement’s objectives, and enhanced communal integration and identification.  

The loss of collective protest singing is a significant one. For me, raising my voice in song along with thousands of others at the Lincoln Memorial during the civil rights and anti-Vietnam war movements was a transformative political experience. Arms linked, we sang in one voice, with emotional intensity, passion and common purpose. I don’t know of any such moments during the current Black Lives Matter movement. The individualistic structure of rap, the dominant contemporary protest genre, is simply not conducive to the production of songs of anthemic power.

At the same time, I can't discount the possibility that some form of collective protest singing will yet return. The creative and innovative evolution from spirituals to blues, jazz and rap implies that this journey is ongoing and capable of unfolding in new and surprising ways. ō


Read Part 1 of this two-part essay.



STEPHEN RICHER is a Professor Emeritus at Carleton University, where he was head of the Sociology and Anthropology Department. He has been a folk and protest singer since his teens. He now teaches courses on the history of protest music at Carleton’s Institute for Lifelong Learning Program. He lives in Ottawa. Stephen's lecture on the life and influence of Pete Seeger can be seen here.




Submitted by gabriellasingleton (not verified) on Fri, 05/06/2022 - 00:09


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Fri, 05/06/2022 - 00:09

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