​​Slaves used song to relay covert messages, express their sufferings, to uplift their fellow community and seek solace in God. Through masterfully orchestrated renditions of inspiring and illustrative choral music, African American Spirituals continue to be present, evolve, and flourish.

Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child

Slaves of African descent in the United States artfully and gracefully turned painful human experiences into lovely art songs known as Spirituals. “Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child,” one of the most unsettling African-American spirituals, most likely originated from the tragic event of a child being taken away from a parent against their will. The Fisk Jubilee Singers performed this spiritual in the 1870s, and it quickly gained popularity. Since then, countless musicians have recorded and presented it in a variety of musical styles.


Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child – SATB

A very popular African American Spiritual and Rosephanye Powell has drafted remarkable lines and harmonies in this rendition of “Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child.” She will not let her followers down with how she handles this moral requirement in this arrangement and singers will find this piece a joy to sing!

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Wade in the Water and Go Down Moses

Harriet Tubman frequently used Spirituals to inform hopeful northbound travelers of her whereabouts and any potential threats. When bloodhounds were on her trail, Tubman used “Wade in the Water” to point her passengers toward a river, and she would draw on “Go Down Moses” to let people know she was close by and ready to lead them to the North.


Go Down Moses – SA/SSA/SSAA

This is an excellent arrangement of the traditional spiritual “Go Down Moses.” Mark Hayes has given us a very jazzy and upbeat rendition of this spiritual with piano accompaniment. Middle school, high school and community choirs will enjoy singing this piece of music.

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Wade in the Water – SATB

Another winner has been created by Stacey V. Gibbs, the undeniable master of Spiritual arrangements, as he provides us rhythms and harmonies we never even knew we desired. This choral arrangement of “Wade in the Water” is moderately challenging and appropriate for an advanced high school choir, college or community choir. Often used as a concert finale, encore or festival performance piece.

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Spirituals were originally unaccompanied by music, created solely by a chorus of voices.

Today, some modern Choral Spirituals still echo the simplicity of unaccompanied voices while others opt to include piano, organ or guitar instrumentation and are performed in concert venues, churches, schools and community halls. Musical features of Choral Spirituals and Art Songs can include a cappella, ensemble, harmony or vocal solo.

Follow the Drinking Gourd

It is said that the “Follow the Drinking Gourd” song acted as a kind of musical map for runaway slaves in search of freedom. Using nature’s natural landmarks, slaves would look to the skies for the “Drinking Gourd,” which was a code name for the Big Dipper star formation. The Big Dipper points towards the north star and was regularly used as a landmark to help those on a quest for freedom to stay on a northbound path.


Follow the Drinking Gourd – 2 Part

Rollo Dilworth’s arrangemnt of this traditional spiritual’s modal melodies, bluesy piano accompaniment, hushed warnings, and layered rhythms create a shadowy atmosphere as the music and lyrics dramatically narrate the historical tale of the Underground Railroad.

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Swing Low, Sweet Chariot

African American Spiritual songs sometimes have recurring subjects with dual meanings and employ veiled symbolic language. On the surface, “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot” can be understood as a song about people hoping to ascend to heaven in a chariot to leave their earthly miseries behind. An alternate deeper meaning to the song alludes to the Underground Railroad, an elaborate network of safe houses and northbound routes used by enslaved African Americans to escape into free states. These secret codes hidden within their songs allowed them be sung and shared with others without alerting the enslavers of their intentions.


Swing Low, Sweet Chariot – SATB divisi

This arrangement of the traditional African-American spiritual song “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot” performed a capella is pure delight. The style’s nearly “New Orleans” twist—pitch bending and exaggerated rhythm—is unique to the setting. It is a difficult piece that calls for vocal endurance and precise timing.

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field and scenery

Choral Spiritual Themes

Contemporary Choral Spirituals focus on the historical themes of freedom, religion, suffering and uplifting their fellow community.

Roll, Jordan, Roll

According to scriptures, it was the Jordan River that the Israelites crossed to enter the Promised Land. The singers of “Roll, Jordan Roll” hope to cross the river to release themselves from their burdens and lead peaceful lives. This Spirituals’ double meaning was secret communication among slaves for escape to the north and freedom. Widely known throughout much of the eastern United States by the time of the American Civil War,” Roll, Jordan Roll” continues to be a mainstay in gospel music and has served as an inspiration for blues music.


Roll, Jordon, Roll – SATB

With his masterful harmonies and captivating rhythms, Stacey V. Gibbs knows how to set up a spiritual to elicit the maximum response from the audience. The final stretch in this spiritual arrangement culminates to an exhilarating finish. Excellent option for advanced church choirs, university choirs, and concert performances.

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Balm in Gilead

The scriptural reference to a perfume that was used as medicine in ancient times, “There is a Balm in Gilead,” was transformed into a potent and notable spiritual by enslaved African Americans. This song describes a miraculous remedy for the pains, ills, and humiliations associated with slavery.

“There is a balm in Gilead, to make the wounded whole.”

This spiritual is one of the most beloved and well-known among American churches. It is commonly used in choir arrangements and concert performances.


There is a Balm in Gilead

Former music director of Chanticleer, Joseph Jennings, arranged this version of “There is a Balm in Gilead.” This unaccompanied work is for mixed voices divisi a cappella and is a traditional African American spiritual makes reference to the book of Jeremiah where the “balm of Gilead” heals the spiritual wounds received in fighting oppression.

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blues music saxaphone

African American Spirituals Provided a Foundation for Many Musical Styles.

Every African American musical genre that has followed, including blues, jazz, gospel, R&B, rock ‘n’ roll, and hip-hop, originated from the legacy of the dynamic communal music known as Spirituals.

He’s Got The Whole World In His Hands

A southern slave who had no control over their future and no say over their present authored the well known Spiritual song, “He’s Got The Whole World In His Hands.” Despite what must have been extreme misery and a life without hope for freedom, the author took comfort in the idea that a divine Creator was in control of their universe, a loving God who will extend support and assistance during our darkest times.


He’s Got The Whole World In His Hands – TB/TTB/TTBB

Arranger Mark Hayes creates a setting for four part male chorus and is a definite crowd pleaser for concerts and festival performances. Arrangements are also available for mixed voices and two-part treble voices. You can find all voicings available here.

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