Negro Spirituals

Celebrating Negro Spirituals

In June 2022, Trinity Presbyterian Church started a year long initiative celebrating the unique art form of the negro spiritual. We are acknowledging the power and beauty of the anonymous spirituals we use during worship, learning about their origin and structure, and gathering funds to “pay royalties” for our use of these pieces during worship, just as we do with pieces that have known composers and arrangers. Trinity will gather and distribute funds to local organizations that are dedicated to keeping the tradition of spirituals alive.

As a part of our year long initiative to celebrate and learn about the art form and liturgical use of the negro spiritual, we will share links to articles and videos of interest.


Do you enjoy singing the Spirituals we have in our hymnal? As we move through this year of exploring Negro Spirituals in our Troubling the Waters initiative, you will learn about the history and power of African-American Spirituals so that you can better sing them during worship. 
The Legend Singers were excited to bring as their educator and conductor Dr. Roland Carter, world-renowned composer, arranger, educator retired from the University of Tennessee Chattanooga, and owner of the MAR-VEL publishing company, which focuses on promoting the choral music of African-American composers and arrangements of spirituals. 
Participants received music and had rehearsals on Friday night and then Saturday morning, with a public concert at 3:00 p.m. that Saturday. 


From The Book of American Negro Poetry, (ed. by James Weldon Johnson, pub.1922), comes poet Johnson's moving ode to the anonymous enslaved writers and singers of negro spirituals. Johnson, a poet and novelist best known for his "Lift Every Voice and Sing" lyrics, writes here of the beautiful melodies and powerful lyrics created under the most dire circumstances of slavery. He acknowledges how these songs helped their singers and listeners live through an inhumane existence and connect their "hungry hearts" with a God of mercy, hope, and freedom.

O Black and Unknown Bards
James Weldon Johnson (1871-1938)

O black and unknown bards of long ago,
How came your lips to touch the sacred fire?
How, in your darkness, did you come to know
The power and beauty of the minstrel's lyre?
Who first from midst his bonds lifted his eyes?
Who first from out the still watch, lone and long,
Feeling the ancient faith of prophets rise
Within his dark-kept soul, burst into song?

Heart of what slave poured out such melody
As "Steal away to Jesus"? On its strains
His spirit must have nightly floated free,
Though still about his hands he felt his chains.
Who heard great "Jordan roll"? Whose starward eye
Saw chariot "swing low"? And who was he
That breathed that comforting, melodic sigh,
"Nobody knows de trouble I see"?

What merely living clod, what captive thing,
Could up toward God through all its darkness grope,
And find within its deadened heart to sing
These songs of sorrow, love and faith, and hope?
How did it catch that subtle undertone,
That note in music heard not with the ears?
How sound the elusive reed so seldom blown,
Which stirs the soul or melts the heart to tears.

Not that great German master in his dream
Of harmonies that thundered amongst the stars
At the creation, ever heard a theme
Nobler than "Go down, Moses." Mark its bars
How like a mighty trumpet-call they stir
The blood. Such are the notes that men have sung
Going to valorous deeds; such tones there were
That helped make history when Time was young.

There is a wide, wide wonder in it all,
That from degraded rest and servile toil
The fiery spirit of the seer should call
These simple children of the sun and soil.
O black slave singers, gone, forgot, unfamed,
You—you alone, of all the long, long line
Of those who've sung untaught, unknown, unnamed,
Have stretched out upward, seeking the divine.

You sang not deeds of heroes or of kings;
No chant of bloody war, no exulting pean
Of arms-won triumphs; but your humble strings
You touched in chord with music empyrean.
You sang far better than you knew; the songs
That for your listeners' hungry hearts sufficed
Still live,—but more than this to you belongs:
You sang a race from wood and stone to Christ.

Celebrating diversity, working for justice, living with joy!

Scroll to Top