The Alteration of Spirituals in the Civil Rights Movement

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.

Gospel Plow and Keep Your Eyes on the Prize with commentary

Keep Your Eyes on the Prize


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.

One thought on “The Alteration of Spirituals in the Civil Rights Movement

  1. Nicely done! I really like how you apply Baraka and Hurston’s arguments to an example they don’t discuss. Since you provide really interesting recordings, it might be worth saying a few words about each. What was the “Eyes on the Prize” tv program, and why do you think they used this song as the title and theme music? Who is narrating the recording that you linked to? (I think it’s Pete Seeger, but it’s a little unclear.) Also, don’t forget to cite Amiri Baraka. 🙂

    Keep up the good work!

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