February 24, 2021

In Homage to African American Composers and Music

Lois Veenhoven Guderian, PhD, graciously wrote this brief synopsis about the evolution of African American spirituals for UW-Superior in recognition of Black History Month. Dr. Guderian was a music educator and coordinator of the music education degree programs at UW-Superior for 12 years until her retirement in May 2020. She now holds the title of Professor of Music Emerita.

By Dr. Lois Veenhoven Guderian, Professor Emerita, University of Wisconsin-Superior
Composer-Arranger, Educator, Researcher, Conductor, Clinician
© 2021

Not only during Black History month, I am always thankful for our United States’ heritage of African music, the creative musical genius of the African peoples, and the nameless host of past African American composers.

African music has been in existence for thousands of years. Africa is the location of one of the earliest musical cultures known to humankind. In the early days of our country, the United States of America, when uncountable numbers of West Africans were kidnapped for the purpose of slavery, Africans brought with them the rich cultural heritage of their music. Among other characteristics of this music was the sophisticated level of rhythm – the use of various drums and rhythm instruments to improvise, create and perform complex polyrhythms. Additional characteristics of the music were a call and response style in vocals, body percussion, movement and dance to express the music, and whole village involvement in the making of music. Music was extremely important in African life and aspects of life were communicated through music.

African slaves retained these characteristics in the music they made in their new home often communicating to each other through musical messages while working in the fields – some referred to as “work hollers.” In other communications, expressions of life and work, slaves developed longer melodies with rhythm and beat to go with the physical gestures of the various tasks. Still other forms of songs evolved from short, call and response melodies and songs that included clapping and movement.

On many plantations, slaves had the opportunity to attend Christian church services where they heard the characteristic melodies and harmonies of Western music in hymns. The creative genius of the African people – individual and collective – made possible an everevolving synthesis of the musical elements of African and European music that resulted in songs and music that exist to this day. The unique sociological conditions of the Africans in America add yet another element to the evolution of “spirituals;” a form of music recognized all over the world.

From their exposure to Christianity, it is understandable that slaves might relate to the
stories of oppression and deliverance suffered by the early Jews and later, the early Christians, and that these might be a source of connection, inspiration and hope for a better world. Furthermore, that the stories of the Bible could become an inspiration for expression through music. Christianity was not a totally foreign concept to some Africans. Many already had a strong belief in an all-powerful and understanding god – a concept retained from West African culture (Curtis, 2003). Expression of all matters of life through music was ingrained in the culture.

English was a second language for the slaves and they had little to no opportunity for
formal education in English. Hence, the words/lyrics of the spirituals are often in a dialect and demonstrate a simple use of language; yet, poetic in nature. In the spirituals, the marriage of music and lyrics is musical, rhythmic, and often of a highly expressive, spiritual nature. Some melodies have a spiritual, transcendental quality, even without the words, that facilitate musical and spiritual experience. The melody of the spiritual Deep River is a good example of this deeply spiritual quality.

Per spiritual, regardless of the particular circumstance that led to expression through
song, be it longing for a better world, joy, celebration, “underground” message, telling of a Biblical story, passing the time, hope, hopelessness and so on, the variety of moods, messages and musical content conveyed through this body of African American music the world refers to as “spirituals” is astounding. And, so are the accounts of the famous Fisk University Jubilee Singers whose a cappella choral arrangements and performances during tours abroad in the 1870s and 1880s wowed the Europeans and first introduced spirituals to the world outside of the United States.

In part, additional non-African influences in the development of African American
spirituals might also include exposure to music created during the Second Great Awakening of evangelicalism and revivalism, the camp meetings that were a part of this, the Sunday school movement and the founding of the American Sunday School Union (1824). These set the sociological stage for individuals who dedicated their lives to the religious education of children and adults across the growing country (Birge, 1966; Hawn, 2020; Mark, 1996&1999; Reynolds & Price, 1987; Rogal, 1983; Root, 1891; Seton, 1984; Whittle & Goodwin, 1877). The work of the American Sunday School Union included outreach to Native Americans and African Americans. Whereas in some places slaves were not allowed to practice Christianity in their own musical ways, the organizers in some of the camp meeting settings welcomed the Africans’
creative fervor, rhythmic energy and musicality in the way they demonstrated Christian beliefs and faith through music. In time, Africans established their own church meeting places where the music flourished. (See also the current PBS documentary Black Church: This Is Our Story, this Is Our Song.)

The depth of human expression that is so beautifully expressed in the spirituals appeals to children, as well as adults. African American spirituals are one of the truest representations of authentic American music in that it is the result of the unique blend of the music of several cultures along with the sociological conditions that brought their creation into being.

Unfortunately, in almost all cases, the African American composers of spirituals are
unknown. However, numerous African American, American and world-wide composer-arrangers have arranged many of the large body of spirituals that have survived. Numerous choirs and individuals have performed and recorded spirituals or arrangements of spirituals. Some particularly beautiful arrangements and recordings are by Moses Hogen – arranger and choral director (now deceased). Recordings of Hogen’s choral groups are available and easy to find on the web. The recorded audio and video concerts of spirituals performed by opera singers Jesse Norman and Kathleen Battle with an African American choir and conductor James Levine at Carnegie Hall are spectacular feats of human singing ability and expression. Several examples are available on Youtube. Researchers and choral directors will also find the choral works of Jester Hairston and R. Nathaniel Dett especially interesting and expressive. On February 26, at 9:00 PM CST, PBS will air the story and struggle of Marian Anderson, a famous African American opera singer: Marian Anderson: Once in a Hundred Years. Many African American singers, past and present, whether specializing in opera, blues, jazz, rock or popular song styles, have included performances of spirituals in their output. Look for Youtube examples by Odetta, Ella Fitzgerald, Billy Holiday, and Paul Robeson to name just a few.

The synthesis of African and European musical elements has also led to numerous
additional forms of music that the world appreciates.

Rhythm and Blues
Boogie Woogie
Jazz (in its numerous forms)
Rock and Roll
Rock (in its numerous forms)
Hip Hop
Popular songs

This is the short list, not the long list. In fact, most styles of popular music in the 20th and 21st centuries include some influence or synthesis of musical elements that date back to the heritage of African music.

The Spirituals are part of our present culture and an important part of our US historical
past. When other countries include the study of multicultural musics in their schools and institutions, African American spirituals are one of the representative styles of American music that receive attention. Yet, due to the sacred content of the lyrics, in some public schools in the United States, these songs that reflect an important part of our history and that also laid the foundation for contemporary forms of music and popular song styles, are neglected. Do we no longer know and understand our own history as told through music? Should we not educate our children and youth in the knowledge of a musical heritage that has benefitted and influenced the whole world?

As a singer and conductor, each time I sing or conduct a spiritual, I am thankful for the
unknown African creators. In my mind, I honor and thank them. I am in awe of their collective and individual ability and perseverance.

As a composer and arranger, when an occasion arises that lends itself to the arranging of one of the spirituals, I am humbly thankful and honored to collaborate on a new version of one of the spirituals in collaboration with these creative individuals from the past whose songs express so many aspects of the human experience in such beautifully, musical ways.

I provide here two listening examples that I have arranged and recorded.

Just a Closer Walk – This Gospel hymn supposedly originated in the African American
community. As is the case with many spirituals and other forms of folk music, the song has evolved to a standardized hymn form found in several hymn books. Recordings and arrangements of the hymn are varied ranging from very upbeat Gospel style to slow and expressive. There are several stories surrounding the origin of the song. While most sources concede to the idea that the origin of the song likely dates to early 20th century, the refining of the hymn to its present form as found in hymnbooks, is a result of the work of various professionals who copyrighted their finished products (https://www.hymnologyarchive.com/justa-closer-walk-with-thee). As a child, having heard an organ rendition of the piece, the arrangement provided here is a treatment of the melody, made from memory, that brings together classical piano-solo form with a modified classical vocal style. It was written as a gift for two individuals who have a special feeling and connection with the song as do many people. In remembrance of Dr. Martin Luther King, I recorded the piece on January 18, 2021. Both a piano
solo edition and piano-vocal edition exist.
Arranger: Lois Veenhoven Guderian © 2020
Sound Recording: Piano and vocal – Lois Veenhoven Guderian © 2021
Registered in the Library of Congress, January 18, 2021.

Do not distribute or broadcast without permission from the arranger and performer, Lois
Veenhoven Guderian

All Night, All Day – A well know spiritual especially well-suited for children. This arrangement
is in the form of a 3-part partner song, performed and recorded live by the Chicago Children’s Choir in Lincoln Park (Chicago) 1996.
Arranger: Lois Veenhoven Guderian, © 1993
Recording: © 1996, Chicago Children’s Choir

Used by Permission

A note from the author: This article is written from the perspective of my lived experience, childhood to present, of hearing-listening, singing, conducting, and arranging African American spirituals, and that experience intertwined with research over many years, school, performance and conference experiences, teaching and reflection.

I do not have the details to be able to cite numerous conferences and choral experiences with African American conductors and clinicians. I have included a few of the past and present resources from the numerous texts and articles I have encountered during my life as a musician, and from my unpublished historical research paper (2002) on the evolution of children’s sacred music in the United States. Part of that paper intersects with and includes the historical evolution of African American spirituals. How could it not?


Agay, Denes (1978). Best loved songs of the American people. New York, NY: Doubleday.

Birge, E.B. (1966). History of public-school music in the United States. Bryn Mawr,
Pennsylvania: Oliver Ditson Company, 1928; reprinted by the Music Educator's National
Conference, 1966.

Curtis, M. V. (2003). African-American spirituals and the gospel music: historical similarities
and differences. Choral Journal, Vol. 41, no. 8, pp. 9-21.

Fenner, T. P. (1874). Cabin and plantation songs. New York, NY: G.P. Putnam’s Sons.

Hawn, C. Michael, (2020). Discipleship Ministries, History of Hymns: “Deep river.” Retrieved from https://www.umcdiscipleship.org/articles/history-of-hymns-deep-river

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Hymnology Archive (n.d.). Retrieved from https://www.hymnologyarchive.com/just-a-closerwalk-with-thee

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Library of Congress (2021). African American spirituals. Part of, the Library of Congress
celebrates the songs of America. Retrieved from https://www.loc.gov/item/ihas.200197495/

Mark, M. (1996). Contemporary music education. Belmont, California: Schirmer,
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Rumble, V.R. (2002). The American Sunday school union: Educating a nation. Retrieved from Wysiwyg://6/http://www.geocities.co6/American_Sunday_School_Union.html

Seton, B.E., (1984). Our heritage of hymns. Berrien Springs, MI: Andrews University Press.

Taylor, M. W. (1883). Plantation melodies. Cincinnati, Ohio: M.W. Taylor and W.C. Echols, Publishers.




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