In Amiri Baraka’s Blues People: Negro Music in White America, he regards African music in terms of its intent, saying that one of its stark differences from Western music was that it was purely functional; it wasn’t meant to exist as art. We see that this African tradition appears in the life of the slave, with work song and spirituals existing as a means of necessary expression that called to God for freedom.
Zora Neale Hurston’s also discusses slave song in Spirituals and Neo-Spirituals, and how they never remain in their original form regardless of publication because each rendition depicts a different mood. For example, the spiritual “Gospel Plow” was originally a work song, but it was performed in during the Civil Rights Era, changing its context, which proved her statement that spirituals are not confined to slavery. In this situation, lyrics have been altered to fit the context of the performance. Looking at “Keep Your Eyes on the Prize” we see the lyrics of “Gospel Plow” change to fit the context of freedom marches. The tunes stayed the same but the verses changed as folks improvised them. In addition, the lyrics vary between each recording, so the side by side comparison is only one example of the lyrical change.
So when Hurston says “Each singing of the piece is a new creation,” the Civil Rights Era literally made a new creation out of this spiritual to adapt to special events such as freedom marches. This also connects back to Baraka’s argument that work song and spirituals were a necessary means of expression because these songs gave a message of perseverance during the freedom marches, no matter what they protesters were faced with.
Sing For Freedom: The Story of the Civil Rights Movement Through Its Songs. Recorded January 1, 1990. Smithsonian Folkways Recordings, 1990, Streaming Audio. Accessed October 3, 2017.
WNEW’s Story of Selma. Folkways Records, Streaming Audio. Accessed October 3, 2017.
Hurston, Zora Neale. “Spirituals and Neo-Spirituals.” In Music In the USA: A Documentary Companion, edited by Judith Tick and Paul Beaudoin, 506-509. New York: Oxford University Press, 2008.