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Columbia College Chicago
Secular and Sacred Folk Music

Secular and Sacred Folk Music

Definition of Style

Folk music is characterized by its integration into daily life or its function as a means of passing time while engaged in activities such as work or travel. Work songs, children's game songs, chain gang chants, songs of political protest, or religious music performed outside the context of the church can all be found in this wide-ranging area. Folk music is transmitted largely via oral traditions, and its practitioners rarely notate or document their compositions. The history of black music is filled with influential folk forms, such as the "field hollers" that are credited as being a source of the call-and-response devices that appear in blues, jazz, and other forms and styles of black music in the United States and the Caribbean.

General stylistic elements of folk vocal performance include call-and-response, full-throated tone quality, and gapped scales, flatted notes, and microtonal melodic progressions. Observers writing in the 1800s often mentioned their inability to describe performance practice adequately or to represent what was actually sung in standard Western notation. Because recording technology was not yet invented, we can only assume that earlier folk performances were not too different from recordings made after 1900.

Spirituals originated in the first half of the 1800s, when widespread efforts to convert slaves to Christianity occurred during the Second Great Awakening. The words to spirituals emphasize Biblical imagery, particularly Old Testament stories of liberation from bondage and New Testament stories from the life of Jesus and the apocalyptic visions of the Book of Revelation. Musical performance practice remained essentially African. The most common musical format was call-and-response, with a song leader singing improvised verses while a group provided short repetitive and often rhythmic responses. The songs themselves could be slow and mournful or in a more rhythmic and up-tempo style also associated with the ring shout, a holy dance.

Northerners became aware of the "slave songs" during the Civil War, and the first attempt to collect and publish them came as early as 1867 with Slave Songs of the United States, compiled and edited by William Francis Allen, Charles Pickard Ware, and Lucy McKim Garrison. Many other collections were published from the late 1800s through the 1930s. After 1900, spirituals were also important in the more popularized recorded repertoire of jubilee gospel quartets.

Spirituals might have remained in local congregations to be replaced gradually with newer musical styles if it had not been for the Jubilee Singers of Fisk University. During a tour to raise money for their struggling school in 1871, they discovered that their performances of spirituals especially delighted their audiences. Spirituals entered the concert repertoire. A number of important composers, notably Harry T. Burleigh, R. Nathaniel Dett, William Levi Dawson, Margaret Bonds, Hall Johnson, and more recently Moses Hogan, have made arrangements of traditional spirituals that are sung in churches and concert halls.


Introductory Bibliography

Allen, William Francis, Charles Pickard Ware, and Lucy McKim Garrison.
Slave Songs of the United States. New York: A. Simpson, 1867. Reprint, Bedford, Mass.: Applewood Books, 1995.

Cleveland Public Library. Index to Negro Spirituals. CBMR Monograph, no. 3. Chicago: Center for Black Music Research, 1991.

Epstein, Dena J. Sinful Tunes and Spirituals: Black Folk Music to the Civil War. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1977. Classic scholarly study of slave music.

Hogan, Moses, ed. The Oxford Book of Spirituals. New York: Oxford University Press, 2002.

James, Willis Laurence. Stars in de Elements: A Study of Negro Folk Music. Edited by Jon Michael Spencer. Black Sacred Music: A Journal of Theomusicology, vol. 9. Raleigh, N.C.: Duke University Press, 1995. Insightful folkloric approach.

Lovell, John, Jr. Black Song: The Forge and the Flame. New York: Macmillan, 1972.


Selected Discography

Afro-American Spirituals, Work Songs, and Ballads (Rounder 1510).

Anthology of American Folk Music (Smithsonian SFW 40090) 6-CD box set

Been in the Storm So Long (Smithsonian/Folkways 40031).

Lead Belly Legacy Series (3 CDs) (Smithsonian/Folkways 40044, 40045, 40105)

Southern Journey (Rounder 1701-13) 13-CD series

Texas Worried Blues: Complete Recorded Works 1927-1929 (Yazoo 1080)