The Music of African American History (2024)

Content Standards

CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.CCRA.R.1. Read closely to determine what the text says explicitly and to make logical inferences from it; cite specific textual evidence when writing or speaking to support conclusions drawn from the text.

CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.CCRA.R.4. Interpret words and phrases as they are used in a text, including determining technical, connotative, and figurative meanings, and analyze how specific word choices shape meaning or tone.

CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.CCRA.R.5. Analyze the structure of texts, including how specific sentences, paragraphs, and larger portions of the text (e.g., a section, chapter, scene, or stanza) relate to each other and the whole.

CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.CCRA.R.6. Assess how point of view or purpose shapes the content and style of a text.

CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.CCRA.R.7. Integrate and evaluate content presented in diverse media and formats, including visually and quantitatively, as well as in words.

CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.CCRA.SL.2. Integrate and evaluate information presented in diverse media and formats, including visually, quantitatively, and orally.

CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.CCRA.SL.4. Present information, findings, and supporting evidence such that listeners can follow the line of reasoning and the organization, development, and style are appropriate to task, purpose, and audience.

NCSS.D2.His.1.9-12. Evaluate how historical events and developments were shaped by unique circ*mstances of time and place as well as broader historical contexts.

NCSS.D2.His.2.9-12. Analyze change and continuity in historical eras.

NCSS.D4.1.9-12. Construct arguments using precise and knowledgeable claims, with evidence from multiple sources, while acknowledging counterclaims and evidentiary weaknesses.

NCSS.D4.3.9-12. Present adaptations of arguments and explanations that feature evocative ideas and perspectives on issues and topics to reach a range of audiences and venues outside the classroom using print and oral technologies (e.g., posters, essays, letters, debates, speeches, reports, and maps) and digital technologies (e.g., Internet, social media, and digital documentary).


  • Inform students that spirituals arose in the early 19th century among African American slaves who had been denied the opportunity to practice traditional African religions for more than a generation and had adopted Christianity. For the most part, slaves were prohibited from forming their own congregations, for fear that they would plot rebellion if allowed to meet on their own. Nonetheless, slaves throughout the South organized what has been called an "invisible institution" by meeting secretly, often at night, to worship together. It was at these meetings that preachers developed the rhythmic, engaging style distinctive of African American Christianity, and that worshippers developed the spiritual, mixing African performance traditions with hymns from the white churches.
  • Explain to students that scholars have long debated the extent of African influence on the spiritual, but that most now trace the "call and response" pattern in which they are typically performed to worship traditions in West Africa. This is a pattern of alternation between the voice of an individual and the voice of the congregation through which individual sorrows, hopes, and joys are shared by the community. In the performance of spirituals, in other words, slaves were able to create a religious refuge from their dehumanizing condition, affirming their humanity as individuals and their support for one another through an act of communal worship.
  • Spirituals also reflect the influence of slavery in their emphasis on traditional Christian themes of salvation, which in this context take on a double meaning. The worshippers sing of their journey toward spiritual freedom through faith, but the song also expresses their hope for physical freedom through God's grace. These two levels of meaning are especially clear in the many spirituals that recount God's deliverance of his chosen people in the Old Testament, in whom African American slaves saw a reflection of their own suffering.

Lesson Activities

Activity 1. How spirituals developed

Provide students with background on the development of spirituals, referring to the posting on "African-American Spirituals" and the essay on "African-American Religion in the Nineteenth Century" at the National Humanities Center website. (For the posting, click "TeacherServe@" on the website's homepage, then click on the icon for "Divining America." From there, click "Getting Back to You" and select "African-American Spirituals" from the menu below. For the essay, click "19th Century" on the "Divining America" webpage, then click "African-American Religion.")

A text of what is probably the most widely known spiritual, "Swing Low, Sweet Chariot," is provided below. Have students notice the song's call-and-response pattern and reflect on the experience of emerging from the group in the solo lines (in italic) and then feeling the group affirm this individual "testimony" with its response.

Swing Low, Sweet Chariot

Swing low, sweet chariot,
Coming for to carry me home.
Swing low, sweet chariot,
Coming for to carry me home.

I looked over Jordan, and what did I see,
Coming for to carry me home?
A band of angels coming after me,
Coming for to carry me home.

Swing low, sweet chariot,
Coming for to carry me home.
Swing low, sweet chariot,
Coming for to carry me home.

If you get there before I do,
Coming for to carry me home,
Tell all my friends I'm coming too,
Coming for to carry me home.

Swing low, sweet chariot,
Coming for to carry me home.
Swing low, sweet chariot,
Coming for to carry me home.

Analysis questions:

To what extent is this spiritual a song about escaping the physical conditions of slavery?
To what extent is it an expression of religious hope and faith?

Activity 2. Role spirituals played for fugitive slaves

Turn next to examine the role spirituals played for fugitive slaves, who sometimes used them as a secret code. This chapter in the history of the spiritual is best illustrated by several episodes in the life of Harriet Tubman as recounted in Harriet, the Moses of Her People, a 19th-century biography based on interviews with this most famous conductor on the Underground Railroad, which is available through EDSITEment at the Documenting the American South website.

Have students read the account of Harriet's own escape from slavery (pages 26-28 in the electronic text), where she uses a spiritual to let her fellow slaves know about her secret plans:

When dat ar ole chariot comes,
I'm gwine to lebe you,
I'm boun' for de promised land,
Frien's, I'm gwine to lebe you.

I'm sorry, frien's, to lebe you,
Farewell ! oh, farewell!
But I'll meet you in de mornin',
Farewell! oh, farewell!

I'll meet you in de mornin',
When you reach de promised land;
On de oder side of Jordan,
For I'm boun' for de promised land.

Analysis questions:

  • What kind of leave-taking is this song about when it is performed as part of religious worship?
  • What is the figurative or coded meaning Harriet communicates to her friends through the song?
  • What is the relationship between these two levels of meaning?
  • How is Harriet's escape like a passing away from the viewpoint of those she will leave behind?
  • How does the song serve to create a bond that will connect her to her friends even after she is gone?

In a later episode (pages 37-38), when Harriet is guiding other slaves to freedom, she uses a spiritual to reassure them that they have eluded a pack of slave hunters:

Up and down the road she passes to see if the coast is clear, and then to make them certain that it is their leader who is coming, she breaks out into the plaintive strains of the song, forbidden to her people at the South, but which she and her followers delight to sing together:

Oh go down, Moses,
Way down into Egypt's land,
Tell old Pharaoh,
Let my people go.

Oh Pharaoh said he would go cross,
Let my people go,
And don't get lost in de wilderness,
Let my people go.

Oh go down, Moses,
Way down into Egypt's land,
Tell old Pharaoh,
Let my people go.

You may hinder me here, but you can't up dere,
Let my people go,
He sits in de Hebben and answers prayer,
Let my people go!

Oh go down, Moses,
Way down into Egypt's land,
Tell old Pharaoh,
Let my people go.

Analysis questions:

  • How does this spiritual fits the circ*mstances of a narrow escape from slave hunters?
  • To what extent is it a signal and celebration of their escape?
  • To what extent a prayer of thanks for their escape?

Activity 3. Analyze Martin Luther King, Jr.'s, "I Have A Dream" speech

The use of spirituals not only in worship but also in the struggle for freedom is a tradition that continued in the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 1960s. As a last step in this survey of the spiritual in African American history, have students look at the conclusion of Martin Luther King, Jr.'s, "I Have A Dream" speech, which is available through EDSITEment at the Martin Luther King Jr. Papers Project website.

So let freedom ring from the prodigious hilltops of New Hampshire. Let freedom ring from the mighty mountains of New York. Let freedom ring from the heightening Alleghenies of Pennsylvania. Let freedom ring from the snow-capped Rockies of Colorado. Let freedom ring from the curvaceous slopes of California. But not only that -- let freedom ring from Stone Mountain of Georgia. Let freedom ring from Lookout Mountain of Tennessee. Let freedom ring from every hill and molehill of Mississippi -- from every mountainside!

When we let freedom ring, when we let it ring from every village and every hamlet, from every state and every city, we will be able to speed up that day when all of God's children, black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics, will be able to join hands and sing in the words of the old Negro spiritual, "Free at last, free at last! Thank God Almighty, we are free at last!"

Have students explain how Martin Luther King, Jr. uses the call-and-response cadences of the spiritual to build his speech. Have them comment also on the figurative meaning behind his literal listing of mountaintops in the United States. Have them note finally how he uses the community-building power of the spiritual to rally support for the Civil Rights Movement.

Analysis questions:

  • Who are members of the community that will respond to his call?
  • What binds them into a community? Shared experiences? Shared beliefs?
  • Explore, too, the part religion plays in this closing gesture of the speech. Is there a religious significance to the communal song Martin Luther King, Jr. envisions? Does he impart a religious dimension to the 1963 March on Washington that was the occasion for his speech? What is the faith he proclaims here to members of diverse religious denominations as a faith they all share?


Ray Charles, Aretha Franklin, Jackie Shane, Solomon Burke, The Staple Singers, and many more Black singers of the 20th century began their singing careers performing spirituals and gospel songs in their respective churches. These artists went on to bridge gospel, soul, blues, rock, funk, and R&B, thus showing the versatility of spirituals in Black history and culture. Rap and Hip Hop artists of the end of the 20th century and start of the 21st century, in addition to writing lyrics that draw upon history and that reflect social, political, and economic issues just as blues and jazz did during the 20th century, also sample from older songs, thus showing an inspiration as well as a rethinking of those songs.

Beyond analyzing the lyrics of a song to make simple connections within a time period when studying history, students can use digital technology and their inquiry skills to create original works that demonstrate their learning around a topic, era, or issue.

Digital Timeline: Students can construct a digital timeline based on an issue that permeates U.S. history beyond a single decade or era (i.e. civil rights, immigration, labor movements, voting rights, etc.) and pair a song of the era with the selected events. The timeline can identify key events related to the topic on top and a song produced at or around the time about that event below the timeline. Students can use their research and the songs they select to present opposing view points on the events they identify on timeline and construct a position that requires analysis and evaluation of the events and the songs included.

Storyboard: In addition to analyzing lyrics, students can use images, sounds, and video clips (when available) as part of a narrated response to a prompt or compelling question that combines multimedia and multiple text types. Storyboard platforms require students to plan what they will say, organize the images and other media in a sequence that articulates a coherent story or argument, and then produce that visual essay creatively using digital technology.

Making the Band:Digital technology platforms give students opportunities to create and record music. Students can write their own lyrics in a style of their choosing toaddressa compelling questionsince songs, as essays do, communicate a perspective on an issue. By creating a song, students will need to be familiar with the conventions of the genre, construct lyrics that they can explain the meaning of, and construct a song the same way they wouldan essay by having an opening, a chorus or refrain that reminds the listener what they are saying about the topic, and a closing.

DBQ essay: Just as students would use excerpts and quotes from speeches, newspapers, and other texts common to the writing of an essay, drawing upon song lyrics to articulate an argument in support of a thesis can also be done. The change over time lens suitable for a DBQ essay would provide students with an opportunity to analyze songs produced at different times or by different performers at a given time to engage in a comparison and evaluation of the point of views, motives, and intended audiences.

Each of the above activities illustrate that issues addressed in spirituals sung during the 18th and 19th century have not fully disappeared from U.S. society and no matter the time, social, political, and cultural issues are the subject of multiple musical genres.

Lesson Extensions

Reference Websites

The Music of African American History (2024)


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