Aesthetics And Utilitarian Values Of Selected African American Negro Spirituals And Gospel Songs

Project and Seminar Material for English Language

Aesthetics And Utilitarian Values Of Selected African American Negro Spirituals And Gospel Songs


This study examines African American songs as an embodiment of black American identity, experience, socio-economic realities, and African Americans‟ perception of the world located as they are within the American society. Although, the subject of African American Music has produced a large and varied literature, the inattention to questions of beauty and functions of the songs seem to neglect the contribution and distinctiveness of the genre in addressing the African American crisis and predicament. In an attempt to fill this gap, the study focuses on selected songs of two song types belonging to the black tradition – Spirituals and early Gospel Songs of Charles Albert Tindley and Thomas Dorsey – as forms which widely explain the circumstances of black life in white dominated America. In particular, the study attempts to establish the aesthetic and utilitarian values of the aforesaid song types. In order to achieve the goals of the study, twelve songs are analysed: six songs from each song style.

They include “De Winter‟ll Soon be Ober,” “I Got Shoes,” “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot,” “We are Clim‟in‟ Jacob‟s Ladder,”“Crucifixion,” and “Soon I Will Be Done.” Others include: “I‟ll Overcome Someday,” “We‟ll Understand It Better By and By,” “Here I May Be Weak and Poor (God Will Provide for Me),”“Take My Hand, Precious Lord,” “Peace in the Valley” and “I‟m Going to Live the Life I Sing About in My Song.” A close scrutiny of the songs reveals two important issues. The first illustrates that the two vernacular styles, developed at different times and environments, provide and at times share a definitive set of aesthetic and stylistic features. Some of them include: allegory, allusion, rhyme, repetition, verse and chorus structure, call-and-response pattern, improvisation, amongst others. Second, the artistic forms – Negro Spiritual and Gospel Songs, – beyond their religious functions, serve as expressive outlets of social, cultural and political circumstances of African American life within the United States.

To drive the point home, Postcolonial theory is employed as a theoretical tool. This framework facilitates the examination of the colonial experience of African Americans in terms of the oppressive form of slavery and its effects on their social and cultural spheres. It also examines the way the two musical styles under study serve as African Americans‟ creative, artistic responses and subtle forms of resistance to the oppressions and race-based discrimination in the mainland of America. This approach in the study stretches backwards from the colonial past of American slavery to the dynamics of neo-colonialism in the early decades of the twentieth century.

Chapter One


1.1 Background to the Study

Negro Spirituals and Gospel Songs are part of the vernacular traditions of the African American people. The vernacular traditions point to black oral forms, creatively created through each phase of the African American culture and presence in the United States. It is a dynamic and continuous process of expressions that chiefly rely on the medium of language in mirroring and evaluating black experience within the American society. Ralph Ellison cited in Gates and Mckay (1997:02) argues that the “vernacular art accounts, to a large degree, for the black American‟s legacy of self-awareness and endurance.”

In other words, the constant contact between black and white in the United States produced in African Americans a profound anxiety with regards to their status and quest for equality and justice. In the light of this, the varied expressions of vernacular art portray the long struggle for freedom, better life and dignity over the centuries, and the African Americans‟ attempt to humanize an often harsh world through expressive modes.

Therefore, the African American vernacular: consists of forms sacred – songs, prayers, and sermons – as well as secular – work songs, secular rhymes and songs, blues jazz, and stories of many kinds. It also consists of dances… (Gates and
Mckay 1997:03).

Although the aforementioned forms vary in their aesthetic qualities, the vernacular forms share traits that reflect African background. Some of the traits include call/response patterns, dance beats (both in musical form and in the rhythm of a tale or rhyme), group creation, and most importantly, improvisation (Mckay 1997:04).

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