The songs had their roots in slavery.
By JOHN W. GOODWIN JR.
VINDICATOR STAFF WRITER
YOUNGSTOWN -- Almost everyone has heard an old spiritual, and most people can recall the lyrics to at least one of the inspirational tunes that seem virtually timeless, but the music does have an origin.
Dr. Victor Wan-Tatah, instructor of philosophy and religious studies at Youngstown State University, and Isaiah Jackson, director of the Youngstown Symphony Orchestra, took a few dozen spectators through the history of spiritual music in the black experience during a Black History Month program complete with sing-a-long spirituals and a frank discussion about the music's birth in slavery.
"The wonderful thing about the spirituals is that they are songs that everybody knows," Jackson said. "They are the cornerstone of the African-American experience."
Roots of the music
To understand the beginnings of spiritual music in the black experience, Jackson said Wednesday, it is necessary to examine the country's slave roots.
Slavery was abolished in the United States during the 19th century, but, he said, the music of those held in bondage lives on through spirituals.
Jackson said slaves were quite ingenious with spirituals, using the tunes to ease everyday-life hardships. He said it was common to sing a tune that would alert other slaves, who may have been taking a few moments rest, of when someone was coming.
Spirituals also were used to pass messages that might be related to the Underground Railroad or just as a way to ease inner pain.
One of the main reasons for slave spirituals, however, may go a little deeper.
Wan-Tatah said spirituals were developed by slaves, sometimes at a moment's notice, as a reflection of how they saw themselves in an often hostile environment. A great religious aspect is found in most of the songs because the Bible gave them something to look forward to -- a feeling that was translated into spiritual form.
"There was a double-coded message in spirituals for slaves. There was a yearning for freedom from their masters, something they could not openly say, and the understanding that there would be spiritual redemption in time," he added.
Jackson said the songs have been passed on through generations of blacks through family and church affiliations.
Wan-Tatah said the music is as important today as it was to those who first sang it years ago. He said the need for joy and hope is something that will not die.
"Spirituals generate the same types of feelings of joy and hope they did for slaves. That is why they are so resilient and will never go away," he added. "They have a deeper meaning to more than just black people."