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Spirituals: The Songs That Inspire Us

Jul 17, 2008
Great spiritual songs that inspire are a part of America's folklore. Long a part of our nation's canon of song, we hardly give thought to how they came into existence. Each one does have a story though, which sheds light on the place and time they were born.

The following songs are a few examples of great spirituals and their origins. These songs are great for singing around the piano and are a fine addition to any piano repertoire.

Amazing Grace

Written originally as a poem by John Newton in 1772, Amazing Grace is one of the most popular spiritual songs in America. The music that accompanies the version we know today is a variation of the tune "New Britain." This music first appeared in 1829 in a hymnal titled Columbian Harmony. The composer is unknown. Amazing Grace is John Newton's personal thoughts on divine grace and his conversion to Christianity.

When the Saints Go Marching In

This song is familiar as a spiritual tune often played in New Orleans to accompany a funeral procession to and from a burial. Louis Armstrong propelled the song to great popularity in the 1930s with his rousing jazz rendition. However, researchers point to the Bahamas as the birthplace of the song.

A song titled "When the Saints are Marching In" resembles the song we know today. Published in 1896, its lyricist and composer were Katherine E. Purvis and James M. Black. Various titles of the piece appeared over the years. The title we are familiar with received publication in a hymnal in 1927 titled "Spirituals Triumphant-Old and New." Vocal and instrumental versions of the song play across the land year after year.

Swing Low, Sweet Chariot

Wallis Willis wrote this song around 1862. The Red River reminded him of the Jordan River, and the references in the song are to the Prophet Elijah going to heaven on a chariot. This song was a favorite of plantation workers in the 1800s. It enjoyed new popularity in the 1960s as part of the music of the Civil Rights movement. Willis was once a slave of the Choctaw Indians.

Michael Row the Boat Ashore

First published in "Slave Songs of the United States" in 1867, this song began in the oral tradition. The abolitionist Charles Ware wrote the music for the words that freed slaves sung on St. Helena Island in the 1860s. This song speaks of crossing the Jordan River, and the river is a metaphor for crossing over from life to death. The Michael of the song is Michael the Archangel.

Go Tell It on the Mountain

This song is a popular Christmas tune. It's a traditional African-American spiritual written by John Wesley Work, Jr. in 1907. The song received publication that year in Nashville, Tenn., in his book, "Folk Songs of the American Negro." Work devoted his time to preserving African-American folk music. Go Tell It on the Mountain has a rich performance history, with Peter, Paul, and Mary; Frank Sinatra and Bing Crosby; and Bob Marley among its performers.

The great spiritual songs continue to speak their words to new generations of listeners. They offer hope to those who seek inspirational messages in musical form to help them in their trials. For this reason, they will uplift those who play and sing them for generations to come.
About the Author
Duane Shinn is the author of the popular online newsletter on piano chords, available free at "Exciting Piano Chords & Chord Progressions!"
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