What Are Negro Spirituals?

by Dr. Judith Christie McAllister

what are negro spirituals fisk jubilee singers

What Are Negro Spirituals? The Fisk Jubilee Singers (c. 1882 above) are an African-American a cappella ensemble, consisting of students at Fisk University. The first group was organized in 1871 to tour and raise funds for college. Their early repertoire consisted mostly of traditional spirituals. The original group toured along the Underground Railroad path in the United States, as well as in England and Europe.

What are Negro Spirituals? They are generally songs which were created by African slaves.  They were part of an oral tradition which imparted important values while also describing the hardships of slavery.

Meeting in the woods out of the sight and hearing of slave owners and overseers, the slaves sang and expressed their true feelings, their issues and the fears they could never express publicly.  To do so would mean certain death. Through these songs, they could lay their burdens down and find the strength to face another day.

Many of the spirituals carried dual meanings and symbolic messages unknown to the slave owners. The lyrics of “Steal Away,” for example, alerted slaves of either one of two things:

(1) that a religious meeting would occur that night; or

(2) conditions were in place for some of the slaves to run to their freedom that night.

Underground Railroad conductor Harriet Tubman, or “Moses” as she was affectionately called, used the spirituals “Wade in the Water” and “Deep River” to warn slaves to travel by water. This would throw off their scent from the bloodhounds once it was discovered that they were missing from the plantation.

Ride On, King Jesus

The lyrics to “Ride On, King Jesus” were an answer to the mistreatments by slave masters, who were no match for a mighty God.

Ride on, King Jesus, No man can a-hinder thee…

Watch our video of West Angeles’ Now Generation Youth & Young Adult Choir, under the direction of Sister Kim Barton, singing this prolific spiritual to honor our ancestors.  Join with us in celebration of the history and the legends of Gospel Music, and offer praise to the Lord for whence we have come. west angeles logo

judith mcallister

Often referred to as “The First Lady of Praise and Worship,” Dr. Judith Christie McAllister is probably best known for her impact as one of the forerunners of the Praise and Worship movement in the African American Church. Having served as Worship Leader at the West Angeles Church of God in Christ under Presiding Bishop Charles E. Blake, Sr., as the church’s Executive Director of the Music and Worship Arts Department, and also as Minister of Music/President of COGIC’s International Music Department, she developed a style and approach to Praise & Worship earning her accolades from coast to coast. A wife, mother, author, prolific Bible teacher, prophetic psalmist and a Grammy Award nominee, Dr. McAlister is the CEO of three entities which enable her to mentor, train and empower the next generation in the ministry of music. Judah Music Group LLC,  Inheritance of Judah Ministries and Never Ending Worship (N.E.W.) Enterprises LLC, provide the foundation for all of her workshops, seminars, ministry services and products.


“Steal Away” was composed by Wallace Willis, a Choctaw Freedman living in the old Indian Territory, sometime before 1862.  Choctaw Freedmen were enslaved African Americans who were emancipated after the American Civil War and were granted citizenship in the Choctaw Nation. The Indian Territory was land within the United States of America reserved for the forced resettlement of Native Americans. Today that land has been reduced and claimed by the United States; it was formerly what is now part of the states of Oklahoma, Kansas, Nebraska, Missouri, Colorado, North Dakota, South Dakota, Montana and Wyoming.