Swing Low Sweet Chariot
Many music scholars argue that African American spirituals represent the first indigenous form of music to emerge in North America (Native American music doesn’t count, apparently). Composed by slaves and passed orally from region to region and generation to generation, they were products of a distinctively American condition and experience.
These same scholars also acknowledge the influence of inherited sources. Slaves brought with them from Africa their own musical traditions, including forms of dance and song that were used in religious ceremonies. Scholars have found vestiges of these traditions, such as the ring dance, within American spirituals.
Scholars have also emphasized the influence of evangelical Christianity, especially the type of evangelical Christianity that filled the camp revivals of the early 19th century. In many instances, slaves were first introduced to Christianity through these revivals. In addition, the denominations at the center of these revivals, such as the Baptists and Methodists, were among the first to embrace the “responsibility” of carrying Christianity to the slave quarters. Moreover, their enthusiastic forms of worship and their underlying belief that believers should vent rather than suppress their religious emotions distinguished these revivals. Revival Christianity celebrated the authenticity of individual religious experience and the authority of individual religious interpretation. Believers were taught to trust their religious feelings and voice them.
For recent slave converts, the message within this particular set of Christian beliefs was empowering. It taught them to trust their feelings and give voice to them in song. Spirituals consequently became an important part of African American religious experience, yet it would be another half-century before these spirituals found an audience in the larger American culture.