An Introduction to Spirituals, Part 2

Did you miss Part 1? Read it here!


William Dawson

Our experience of Spirituals today is as fully accompanied songs or choral arrangements. A large part of their effectiveness comes from the accompaniments created by the original arrangers, working a generation or two after the end of slavery. Two of the most prominent arrangers were William Dawson (1899-1990), a composer, choral director, and professor at the Tuskegee Institute in Alabama, and Hall Johnson

(1888-1970), a professional violinist and conductor of the Hall Johnson Choir.


The original publications of Spirituals included lyrics in African American dialect, or what the arrangers believed to be the authentic dialect. Eileen Geunther, in her book In Their Own Words: Slave Life and the Power of Spirituals, notes that “there has been much debate over the extent to which dialect should be preserved in performance of Spirituals today, whether the use of dialect could be perceived as demeaning, or whether its elimination could be perceived as demeaning.”

To our modern ears, dialect can sound racially insensitive, perpetuating racial stereotypes. But correcting the lyrics to proper grammar results in a loss of the natural flow and feeling of the text. “Isn’t that good news” doesn’t have the same impact as “Ain’-a that good news.” With my choir, and in my arrangements, I try to strike a balance between dialect and correct grammar, but there are no hard and fast rules.

Spiritual or Gospel?

I am occasionally asked about the difference between Spirituals and gospel music. The difference is mainly one of time. Spirituals were written up through the first half of the 19th century. Gospel music was written in the latter half of the 19th century and first half of the 20th century, and it often incorporates elements of blues or jazz.


One thing that makes Spirituals especially poignant is their connection to slavery in the United States. Slavery is our “original sin,” having been practiced by many of our Founding Fathers and incorporated into the founding documents of our country. We are still dealing with the effects of slavery even 150 years after the Emancipation Proclamation. That such powerful and beautiful music could come out of such an unimaginably awful and inhuman institution makes African American Spirituals all the more meaningful.