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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.
“Swing Low, Sweet Chariot” is known today as one of the most popular of all African American spirituals in part because it became one of the calling cards of the Fisk University Choir, known as the “Jubilee Singers.”
The choir was formed shortly after the founding of Fisk University. The all-black college had been established in 1865 to educate a cadre of teachers for the recently freed former slaves of the South. Within just a few years, though, the school was on the edge of bankruptcy. In something of a desperate measure, school officials formed a student choir, gave the singers the last $50 in the school treasury, and sent them out on the road.
Initially the choir met only limited success, but at Oberlin College, a school famous for its pre-Civil War anti-slavery activism, the Fisk singers received an enthusiastic reception singing before a convention of Christian ministers. These ministers carried word of the powerful singing group home, and soon the newly named Jubilee Singers had a calendar full of invitations. At Oberlin the group also discovered what sort of music most moved their audiences. Initially they had filled their program with conventional ballads, but at Oberlin they had inserted more spirituals into their performance, and it was these songs that most moved their audience. From this point forward, they filled their program with spirituals like “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot," "Steal Away," "Were You There When They Crucified My Lord," and “Mary Don’t You Weep.”
Within just a few years, the choir and the spirituals that filled their program were nationally and internationally famous. In 1872, the Jubilee Singers sang for President Ulysses S. Grant and members of Congress in Washington, D.C. In 1873, they sailed to England, where they sang for Queen Victoria. Over the next several years, the singers toured extensively in the US and Europe, performing in Switzerland, Holland, and Germany and bringing songs like “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot” with them.