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In North American white and black folk music, an English-language folk hymn. White spirituals derived variously, notably from the lining out of psalms, dating from at least the mid-17th century. Where congregations could not read, a leader intoned the psalm one line at a time, alternating with the congregation's singing of each line to a familiar melody; the tune, sung slowly, was ornamented with passing notes, turns, and other graces. A second source was the singing of hymns set to borrowed melodies, often secular folk tunes. Themes included going home to the promised land and gaining ground against sin; typical refrains were Roll, Jordan and Glory Hallelujah. The songs survive in oral tradition in isolated areas and also in the form of shape-note singings. African American spirituals developed in part from white rural folk hymnody but differ greatly in voice quality, vocal effects, rhythm, and type of rhythmic accompaniment. They were sung not only in worship but also as work songs, and the text imagery often reflects concrete tasks. Like the white gospel song, the modern African American gospel song derives from the spiritual.
This entry comes from Encyclopædia Britannica Concise. For the full entry on spiritual, visit Britannica.com.