Saturday, June 6, 2020

African American spirituals & the shout...

The Shout at a Prayer Meeting, Georgia, Charles Stearns, The Black Man of the South (New York, 1872)

The very first negro spirituals were inspired by African music even if the tunes were not far from those of hymns. Some of them, which were called “shouts” were accompanied with typical dancing including hand clapping & foot tapping.

After regular a worship service, congregations often stayed for a “ring shout.”  It was a survival of primitive African dance. The men, & sometimes women, arranged themselves in a ring. The music started, perhaps with a Spiritual, and the ring began to move, at first slowly, then with quickening pace. The same musical phrase could be repeated over & over for hours. This produced an ecstatic state. Women sometimes screamed & fell. Men, exhausted, dropped out of the ring. 

The most common early spiritual musical format was call-and-response, with a song leader singing improvised verses, while a group provided short repetitive & often rhythmic responses. The songs themselves could be slow and mournful or in the more rhythmic, up-tempo style also associated with the ring shout, a holy dance.