African American religious music has generally been born of suffering yet focused on hope-hope for a better world, where oppression and suffering give way to justice and freedom. In the spirituals and hymns that have grown out of African American experience, this hope has most often been expressed in terms of a heaven beyond this world, where all will be made right. Despite their upbeat character, these songs also reflect both poles of the emotional continuum that ranges from despair and hopelessness to joy and hope.
Songs are a very important part of our history. They tell us a great deal about people of the past—how they worked, how they entertained themselves, and what their daily lives were like.
Music played a very important part in the captivity of the slaves. It was an venue of communication between the slaves allowing them to speak freely, with the slave master having little clues what the conversations were about.
The American folksong Follow the Drinking Gourd was first published in 1928. The Drinking Gourd song was supposedly used by anUnderground Railroad operative to encode escape instructions and a map. These directions then enabled fleeing slaves to make their way north from Mobile, Alabama to the Ohio River and freedom. Taken at face value, the "drinking gourd" refers to the hollowed out gourd used by slaves (and other rural Americans) as a water dipper. But here it is used as a code name for theBig Dipperstar formation, which points to Polaris, the Pole Star, and North.
The importance of singing, spirituality and community in the slave quarters was prefigured in the West and Central African cultures from which North American slaves were captured. These African cultural roots help to explain why the singing of sacred songs was such a significant contributor to enslaved Africans’ capacity for emotional survival and resilience.
These songs reflect the emotional continuum that ranges from despair and hopelessness to joy and hope.
The video to the left portrays theOrion Chorale vocalizing the song 'I’ve Been Buked" which shares those emotions experienced by the African slave and Jesus.
Jesus was despised and rejected like the common slave of the day. He went through the same similar anguish, rejection and pain. He was beaten, scorned and rebuked.
In this song, the lyrics reflects the concept of feeling so rebuked and scorned…of feeling that the world is full of trouble…of feeling overwhelmed by the sorrow. The African American sang how they were so, so, so tired of we’ve been ‘buked [rebuked], and we've been scorned. There is trouble all over this world, children. There is trouble all over this world. Grief, death, heartbreak, betrayal, abuse, health issues. The troubles of this world never seem to stop.
BUT the song does have hope in it. Ain’t gonna lay my ‘ligion [religion] down, no. Ain’t gonna lay my ‘ligion down. This song declares that they aren’t going to give up on faith, on hope, on God–not even in the midst of extreme suffering. The vibrant faith of many African Americans today in this country is a testimony of this unwavering faith despite all odds. The way they fought for their civil rights (and continue to fight to this day) shows that they will not give up.
Not only did the songs talk about one’s freedom and salvation from the slave master of that day, but many of the songs encouraged spiritual freedom in the sacrifice of Jesus’ life.
This song, "Ride the Chariot" not only gave hope to those who was still traveling on the "underground train" trying to reach a safe land to meet their friends and family, but it gave them faith in Jesus that there was a heavenly home waiting for them.