Development of Blues, Ragtime and Jazz Music

Negro Spirituals and the Development of Blues, Ragtime and Jazz Music

The melodies and rhythms of Africa have found their way to America through many ways and the African-American spirituals are one of them. There is one religious folk song, originally sung by the African-American protestants of the southern United States is now known as the spirituals. These pieces of music originated during the period of 1800 to 1850. It was a result of the efforts of trying to convert the then slaves to Christianity. This is generally known as the second Great Awakening. The words contained in the spirituals are based on images present in the Bible, and specially the stories in the Old Testament regarding liberation from bondage. There are also stories from the New Testament regarding the life of Jesus and the visions from the Book of Revelation. These were the songs that the slaves sang while they continued working in the fields of the plantations, and became the Spirituals. These songs also helped in many practical functions of the slaves. The earliest common form of this music was in terms of call and response. There used to be a song leader who used to sing some improvised verses and the group of slaves replied to him with short, repetitive and rhythmic responses. These formed a sort of a mode of communication or the map for travel to the north. Apart from these mundane reasons, these songs formed their cry for freedom and salvation. These were also sorrow songs and are thus directly related through the material to the later on form of blues. (Hogan, 14)

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Of course, there were also some quite joyous spirituals and these influenced the contents of the gospel songs. There was development of these songs, and after 1900 they became very important in the popular recorded versions of the jubilee gospel quartets. For this there was a great contribution from the Jubilee Singers of Fisk University. Otherwise, they might have just remained as songs for the local congregations and would have been replaced with newer musical styles. The students discovered that these songs were extremely popular among their audiences during a tour that they undertook to raise money for their struggling school in 1871. Thus the spirituals entered the realm of concerts. There have been a number of composers like Harry T. Burleigh, R. Nathaniel Dett, William Levi Dawson, Margaret Bonds and the more recent Moses Hogan. These composers have made the arrangements that have allowed the music to be sung in concert halls and churches. (Jones, 34) The paper is an understanding into the origin of the Negro spirituals, its development and leading composers. Further the paper also delves into the role of the Negro spirituals in the development of Blues, Jazz and Ragtime. Finally the paper also focuses on the critical aspects of the music of the Negro spirituals and ends with a personal observation of the topic discussed.


This branch of song of the Negro spirituals was thought of as the only original folk music of the United States for a long time. Then there was research into its origin and this discovered the nature and extent of the original African ancestry. The slaves from Africa were brought from different regions of Africa, and this has resulted in no clear source of African music being clear in these songs. Some of the elements of African music and the American black spirituals are however common. The common elements are syncopation, polyrhythmic structure, the pentatonic scale and the responsive rendition of the text. The improvisatory nature of the spirituals was increased through audience participation. This has resulted in a single text idea taking tens or even hundreds of versions. (Epstein, 22)

Cecil Sharp explored the wide nature of the American folk son literature in the early parts of the twentieth century. He was later able to show that much of these were of British ancestry G.P. Jackson then traced the influence of revivalist and evangelist songs of the early 19th century camp meetings conducted by the southern white people with the help of this discovery. Many of the black spirituals were shown by him to be the adaptations or from the inspirations of the spirituals conducted by the whites by Jackson using hundreds of comparative examples. The religious songs of the whites in the south had many sources, and the African musical traditions were mixed with these to ultimately produce the form of folk music that could be seen as distinctly black in character. From the reconstruction period to the present, this joint African-American tradition has continued and changed in spirituals and sacred music. (Jones, 35)

The gospel, blues and even pop singers have continued the religious themes that were the soul of the early spirituals. An example can be given of Mariam Anderson who was a very famous singer in her time. She was originally trained for the opera and did not even sing spirituals. She gave her signature performance right in front of the Lincoln Memorial. This was a protest to the Daughters of the American Revolution. This resulted in her place being set in the heart and minds of the Americans. The spiritual tradition is still being kept alive in a variety of ways even in the present times. (Hogan, 16)

Christian Gospel artists are traditionally supported a lot in the Christian communities, along with some crossover stars. Kirk Franklin is one of them. He does not sing the songs in the same rhythmic style as the spirituals were sung earlier. Yet the message of his songs still remains strongly Christian and carries the imagery of the people “rising up” from the existing situation. Al Green is probably even better known as a Christian artist. He has been a favorite of the young and old fans of this music for decades due to the soulful nature of his music. The early days of black spirituals are brought back to the listeners by the musical prayers of Green.

Epstein, 22) The spiritual tradition is also followed in the modern by the highly celebrated ex-Fugee Lauryn Hill in her performances. Many of her counter parts in the industry do not match up to her outspoken nature. She has her rich vocals and engaging lyrics to help her sing these spiritual songs in the pop culture that is followed in secular music. She uses Biblical allusions in her lyrics like “Forgive them father for they know not what they do.” This also shows the religious nature of the music.

Black music has often come up immediately to meet the demand of the people and this has resulted in many influential folk forms like blues, jazz and other forms and styles that exist in both the U.S. And the Caribbean. In a way, it may be said that blues began with the beginning of the American Negroes. Otherwise one may say that the introduction, the reaction and subsequent relationships of the Negro in this country, in English is in a way the beginning of the conscious American Negro. The Negro spirituals and work songs in the plantations took the form of the blues. These were not often accompanied on instruments and had a call and response pattern. The work songs were sung solo and called ‘hollers’. These are normally of free form. These songs served as the foundation for the secular music prepared by black America. Though they contained the spirituals and work songs, they were still the first expression of the Africans experience with America. There is an important collection in the Smithsonian called “The Blues” in 1993.

This gives a clear picture of the origin of blues and its initial various forms. Gradually this became a blended together form of all music of the blacks in the distinctive new form. These may be even be thought as the secular form of spiritual and gospel songs, or it may be said the other way, the spiritual and gospel songs are the religious form of blues (Berendt, 171). In terms of music this consisted of a 4/4, 12 measure pattern. This was harmonized with four measures on a tonic chord and two on a subdominant chord. This was followed by two more on a tonic, two on a dominant and then the final two back to the tonic.

In terms of voice, they normally have an AAB rhyme scheme, where two lines are the same or very similar and the third line will end the verse. There are very few deviations from this rigid structure of the blues. The example of an 8-bar blue is “Shave ‘Em Dry” of Ma Rainey. There is a 16-bar blue called “Pallet on the Floor” by Jimmy and Mama Yancey, and a few blues are even stretched to 24 bars. Most of the recorded versions however fit into the 12-bar and AAB scheme (Talbot, Britton, McNeil, 2). These songs are deeply rooted in the black psyche and have a continuous presence in the lives of the Afro-Americans.

The theories about the origin of jazz are many. The most commonly accepted theory is that it originated in New Orleans. This was a result of many influences including African polyrhythms, European classical and American Negro spirituals. This then spread rapidly in the turn of the century culture, and within two decades it had become the most popular form of music in the biggest cities of that time in the country – New York and Chicago. It is felt to be a wonderful form of music and some even ascribe the origin of the music to the same non-people who built the pyramids. They returned after quite a few thousand years because they were unable to stand the types of folk music that were being dished out then, and decided to replace it with infinitely more pleasant form of jazz. An even weirder theory is that jazz resulted from a government experiment to protect us in case of an invasion by Canada – of course, practically nobody believes it. (Gridley, 44)

But in reality, it was during the 1940s the forms of music of Ragtime, early Dixieland jazz and the blues were all formed. These were all forms of swing music and were the most popular form of music in America in those years. The African musical elements had survived in the music forms of the African-Americans. Jazz is a clear example of this retention. These people, their customs and folkways in America form the history of jazz and its transplantation. All the history of jazz contains various Afro diasporic elements like the styles of bebop, cool, modal, hard bop, third stream, avant garde, fusion and even up to the young lions and contemporary jazz. The music continues to evolve due to the efforts of the performers in the tradition of jazz. This brings in new and innovative styles to inform the music to keep it fresh. This openness and willingness to change is the clear indication of the African culture. These also give clear insights into the methods of the African nature of jazz having remained unchanged over this period. (Berendt, 172)

Jazz was really the first original indigenous form of American music which went on to influence music in the rest of the world. The deep down growl of the blues, field hollers, rising gospel choirs, driving brass bands and ragtime syncopation are all included in jazz. The large black population of New Orleans was the main reason as to why it played such an important role in the development of jazz. There were brass bands there playing when marches took place in parades and comfort families during the funerals. The numerous society dances required skilled musical ensembles. The African-American musicians were at last able to remove the mask of deception that had been worn by their predecessors in the closed rooms of the jazz clubs of America and Europe. The earlier generations had to sing the spirituals, moaned the blues and had to paint their faces white to enable participation in the minstrel shows for the entertainment of the white supremacists. (Gridley, 46)

There were many important African-American musicians in the twentieth century including John Coltrane, Thelonious Monk, Nina Simone, Roberta Flack, Les McCann, Archie Shepp, Cecil Taylor, Sonny Rollins, Abbey Lincoln, Max Roach, Charles Mingus, Betty Carter and many more. (Hogan, 16) They all used jazz to condemn the present racist society. The society not only enjoyed great pleasure from the music but also great commercial success due to their publication and promotion of the Negro spirituals, blues, minstrelsy and finally jazz. The real jazz was however only the creation of the African-American musicians for a voice in the society. That was not accepted, but critically denounced and underexposed. It was lauded and rewarded far less than the commercial jazz, which was the diluted version given for mass consumption rather than the nationalistic expression present in the real jazz.

From the late 19th century till the end of the First World War, there was another popular music prevalent in the U.S. called ragtime. By definition, this music will always include syncopation. Almost all the commentators have said that the originators of this music were black in both the vocal and instrumental types. Early ragtime music and African music are very similar. The rhythmic syncopation of ragtime may have come directly from the rhythmic practice in African music of ‘patting juba’. This is the accompaniment of dance by various body-based rhythmic sounds like clapping hands, tapping of feet and slapping of various parts of the body. (Berlin, 44)

The descent of this music was traced from the indigenous American Negro music styles like the plantation spirituals and work songs. Minstrelsy or the popular imitation and caricature of Negro music may also have played a role. Ragtime music has been in the U.S. ever since the Negro race came according to experts like Scott Joplin. This form of music is known to have started in the south, and this was a heavily black populated area. The music was known as Chicago in many areas of the U.S. By the 1890s. The music was originally written for all instrumental and vocal forms, but today only the piano forms are mostly played. (Berlin, 46)

The verse of the spirituals’ are considered inferior to the melody by many. This is felt to be due to the lack of the education of the Negro, which forced him to concentrate on rhythm and harmonics. These were the inherent parts of his genius and needed no formal schooling to be expressed. The text of the Bible for verse themes was used by the slaves of the Southern plantations. They found a striking similarity with the situation of the children of Israel in Egypt and their own. This analogy has been used in the famous “Go down, Moses.” There is a touch of whimsy in “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot.” Here the chariot of Elias is asked to swing low to enable the soul enjoy the ride to heaven. The spirituals are dubbed naive and sentimental by some self appointed experts, but they reflect the fact that arose from the pain of a race which was helpless before some self appointed masters. The slave’s dread of family separation gave rise to songs like “Is Massa Goin’to sells us tomorrow?” And “Farewell to my only child.” In the extreme south like Virginia there was a better sense of permanence on the family plantations. This was reflected in the spirituals being more buoyant and happy. Wherever the slaves were abused more often, the spirituals reflected their sorrow by containing more sorrow and foreboding. “I feel like a motherless child” is a reflection of insecurity as well as an embodiment of the emotions of down trodden people throughout the world. (James, 54)

The purest forms of valuable musical lore in America of today are the spirituals and even secular Negro folk melodies, with their harmonic styles. They are felt by musical authorities to be epic and full of simple dignity and not sentimental or theatrical. That the spirituals are mainly choral in character is the opinion of Dr. Alain Locke. He also feels that they are not at their best in solo voice or instruments. His prediction is that their best development will come through symphonic choir, as had been done by the Russian composers to their folk music. He insists that the spirituals will achieve their folk atmosphere and quality religious aspects again. In his book, ‘The Negro and his music’ Dr. Locke has deplored the dominance of pseudo spirituals in the world of today. He has remarked that these folk compositions have now been colored with artificial compositions, frills in sentimentality and concert versions. The spiritual having the unhappy links with slavery and illiteracy has led to even the educated Negroes also avoiding it. (James, 56)

There are some outstanding Negro artists and choral groups who are rendering these beautiful melodies faithfully and with true understanding, and this is breaking down the antipathy to some extent. In the opinion of Dr. Locke, Eva Jessye Choir and the Hall Johnson Singers have given the most accurate reproduction of genuine Negro singing and may be considered to be typical of these musicians. These singers have the correct mechanism of the syllabic quavers, off tones and tone glides, improvised interpolations and subtle rhythmic variations of Negro choral singing. According to most experts there is too much melody and harmony in most of the presented versions of spirituals. It is said that when the melodic elements of the spirituals are emphasized too much, the result will be a sentimental ballad of the Stephen Foster type. The barber shop chorus will be the result from a high stress on harmony. The product will be completely secular and become only a syncopated shout with no religious mood when there is too much concentration on rhythmic idiom. The only solution thus lies in the subtle fusing of all the elements to form a genuine folk spiritual. (James, 57)

The spirituals are considered to be somewhere between folklore and art form today. They are going through a phase of increasing popularity, and his has led to dangerous sophistication and over-elaboration. The formal European idioms and mannerisms have started influencing even Negro composers strongly in their setting of the spiritual. That folk songs have many different styles has to be kept in mind. Some critics opine that the spiritual calls for choral arrangements. They also believe that it is important to have a sustained background of accompanying voices. Effective solo verses have been written by several celebrated Negro artists like Nathaniel Dett, William Dawson, Ballanta Taylor, and Lawrence Brown. (Jones, 37) They also are now turning to the choral form with increasing interest. It may be permitted to develop along it own lines and that will lead to an evolution of the Negro folk song. Maybe it will surpass even the choral music of old Russia.

Of course there have been a lot of changes to the early black spirituals to form the music that is sung today. Spirituals of today have moved out a lot from the early forms of gospel music which exists even today. There are many young artists of today who do not stay within the earlier confines of spiritual music, but to broaden the base of this music, they must be taken within the list of performers. A broader base will help in terms of increasing the awareness of this music. It will also talk about the roots, gradual evolution, and the varying forms in which it is continuing today. (Jones, 37)


Thus by way of this paper, I have made an attempt to describe the religious folk song, originally sung by the African-American protestants of the southern United States which is now known as the spirituals. The paper has made an understanding into the origin of the Negro spirituals, its development and leading composers. Further the paper has also tried to analyze the role of the Negro spirituals in the development of Blues, Jazz and Ragtime. Finally I have touched on the critical aspects of the music of the Negro spirituals. The topic has been of great interest to me and it has enabled me to do the research on it satisfactorily.


Berendt, J.E. “The jazz book: New Orleans to jazz rock and beyond.” London et al.: Paladin Grafton Books. 1986, 171-172

Berlin, Edward A. “Ragtime – A Musical and Cultural History” London, University of California Press, 1980, p.43-46

Epstein, Dena J. “Sinful Tunes and Spirituals: Black Folk Music to the Civil War.” Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1977, p.22-24

Gridley, Mark C. Jazz Styles: History and Analysis. Prentice Hall: New Jersey, 1997, p.44-47

Hogan, Moses, ed. “The Oxford Book of Spirituals.” New York: Oxford University Press, 2002., p.14-18

James, Willis Laurence. “Stars in de Elements: A Study of Negro Folk Music. Edited by JonMichael Spencer. Black Sacred Music: A Journal of Theomusicology, vol. 9. Raleigh, N.C.: Duke University Press, 1995, p.54-58.

Jones, Arthur C. “Wade in the Water: The Wisdom of the Spirituals.” Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1993, p.34-37

Talbot, Britton, McNeil. “The Blues” Smithsonian Institution: Washington DC, 1993, 2-4

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