Skip to main content
It looks like you're using Internet Explorer 11 or older. This website works best with modern browsers such as the latest versions of Chrome, Firefox, Safari, and Edge. If you continue with this browser, you may see unexpected results.

African-American Music

Music styles of African Americans from colonial times to the present


Read the "Spiritual" article in the Grove Dictionary of American Music, 2nd edition (You must log in from off campus)

Spirituals (formerly called Negro Spirituals) were the main religious songs of enslaved people of North America.  These songs were sung in churches, cotton fields, and as "signal songs" on the Underground Railroad.  After the Civil War, this music became known to Europeans and European-Americans via the Fisk Jubilee Singers and other classically-trained African-American musicians.  Many people consider the spiritual to be the first truly American musical genre. 

Books about Spirituals 

For more books and articles, use OneSearch to search this subject:  Spirituals (Songs) -- History and Criticism

  • Sinful Tunes & Spirituals: Black Folk Music to the Civil War, by Dena Epstein
    ML 3556 .E8
  • Choral Arrangements of the African-American Spirituals:
    Historical Overview and Annotated Listings

    ML 128 .V7 T75 1998 (Music Reference Collection)
  • Wade in the Water: The Wisdom of the Spirituals, by Arthur C. Jones
    ML 3556 .J72 1993

Other Music of Enslaved African-Americans:

Collections of Spirituals for Solo Voice

Collections For Chorus

Websites of Interest

The Spirtuals Project at the University of Denver

The Art of the Negro Spiritual, by Randye Jones

The Spirituals Database

Spirituals in the Choral Public Domain Library (CDPL)

Spirituals in the International Music Score Library Project (IMSLP)

The Fisk Jubilee Singers were former slaves who sang choral arrangements of spirituals for audiences in the Northern United States and Northern Europe during the post-civil war period to raise money for Fisk University.  The group continues to perform to this day.

Fisk Jubilee Singers official site

Jubilee Singers, on PBS's American Experience

The Story of the (Fisk) Jubilee Singers  With Their Songs, 1881, online via Google Books.

Watch "The Spirituals," a documentary about this music on (log in required from off campus):


Work Songs

Read the article on "Work Songs" in The  Grove Dictionary of American Music, 2nd edition (Log-in required from off-campus)

The "work song" genre could accompany almost any kind of work, but was particularly important for slaves working together in fields or when coordinated movements were required.  It was the subject of ethnomusicological research in the early 20th Century, but the genre died out and so did the research.  These songs were sung in the fields or other places where groups of people worked together.  These sources document the music as it was sung in the post-war South:


Parchman (Prison) Farm: Photographs and Field Recordings 
(1947-1959), by Alan Lomax
Compact Disc 22655

Negro Workaday Songs, by Howard Odum (1926)
ML 3556 .O32

Folk Song of the American Negro, by John Work (1915)
ML 3556 .W78 1915a

Work songs and other early African-American songs, arranged by J. Rosamund Johnson:

Rolling Along in Song: A Chronological Survey of American Negro Music (1937),
by J. Rosamund Johnson
M 1670 .R655