40 of My Favorite African-American Spirituals, Folk, and Freedom Songs

My soul look back and wonder
How did I make it over

— Mahalia Jackson, “How I Got Over”

Y’all, I know it may be strange for me to say as a half-American middle-class white kid in 2021—and I hope it doesn’t conjure images of Craig in that classic “Juneteenth” episode of Atlanta—but one of my honest-to-God favorite subgenres of music is African-American spirituals and other folk and freedom songs. I’ve been through several folk music phases in my life (see: Bob Dylan), but I first got into spirituals back in college thanks in large part to Sweet Honey in the Rock—the great Civil Rights-era acapella ensemble whose songs appear numerous times on this list. To this day, that rich music, which I rarely hear in white churches—for good reason: it doesn’t often go well—fills up my soul when I hear it, and continues to teach me about what hope looks or looked like from the underside of American history.

I don’t know exactly what the definition for “African-American Spirituals” is, but to state the obvious, they are a genre of folk songs that originated among African-Americans in the pre-Civil War United States and “that [typically] imparted Christian values while also describing the hardships of slavery.” These songs were cries of hope and sources of spiritual/emotional solace that emerged out of unfathomable suffering and injustice. Here’s a fascinating explanation from Frederick Douglass:  

The remark in the olden time was not infrequently made, that slaves were the most contented and happy laborers in the world, and their dancing and singing were referred to in proof of this alleged fact; but it was a great mistake to suppose them happy because they sometimes made those joyful noises. The songs of the slaves represented their sorrows, rather than their joys. Like tears, they were a relief to aching hearts.

The songs were often steeped in religious themes and imagery, and typically sung during work, in church, or at so-called “camp meetings,” which were essentially religious revivals. Here’s a mid-19th century description from a northern white Methodist and critic of slavery who traveled through the South:

I have witnessed scenes at these meetings morally grand and sublime—scenes which can never be blotted from my memory. Camp-fires blazing in every direction with heart pine wood; the groans and the sobs of penitent sinners; the shout and the rapture of the new convert; the rejoicing of friends; the deep, melodious, organ-like music welling from a thousand African throats—all conspired to elevate the soul to Christ…

At the same time, as has often been pointed out, these ostensibly religious songs were also very political—songs inspiring listeners to seek their freedom and sometimes even containing coded messages for how to do so. Here’s a basic overview of that reading of the spirituals:

Eventually, African-American spirituals branched out in numerous new directions, melding with new styles (blues, gospel, etc.) and incorporating new meanings and experiences after the Civil War. Therefore, not all the songs on this list are traditional “slave spirituals,” but most are still African-American folk songs of some sort that would fit the general mold of “spirituals” or freedom songs. Those songs on this list that do NOT actually have “folk” origins but can be traced to specific authors/composers were still essentially adopted as folk songs, being sung by African-Americans as work, protest, or gospel songs through the 20th century.

Anyway, below is a list of 40 of my personal favorite African-American spirituals, folk, and freedom songs, arranged in alphabetical order by song name, with a further list of songs from this genre included (with links) at the end. For what it’s worth, my all-time favorite is probably #39. Enjoy!

1.) Sweet Honey in the Rock – Ain’t Gonna Let Nobody Turn Me Around

2.) Mary Pickney – Been in the Storm So Long

3.) Harry Belafonte – Buked and Scorned (a.k.a. I’ve Been Buked and I’ve Been Scorned)

4.) Wintley Phipps – Deep River

5.) Emmylou Harris, Alison Krauss, and Gillian Welch – Didn’t Leave Nobody but the Babe

6.) Alvin Ailey – Didn’t My Lord Deliver Daniel

7.) Sweet Honey in the Rock – Down by the Riverside (a.k.a. Ain’t Gonna Study War No More)

8.) Mary Pickney and Janie Hunter – Down on Me

9.) Alison Krauss – Down in the River to Pray

10.) Sweet Honey in the Rock – Eyes on the Prize (a.k.a. Keep Your Eyes on the Prize, or Hold On)

11.) Ritchie Havens – Follow the Drinking Gourd

12.) Louis Armstrong – Go Down Moses

13.) Mahalia Jackson – How I Got Over

14.) Ed Lewis – I Be So Glad When the Sun Goes Down

15.) Fisk Jubilee Singers – I’m Gonna Sing Till the Spirit Moves

16.) Paul Robeson – I’m Gonna Tell God All of My Troubles

17.) Sam Cooke – Jesus Gave Me Water

18.) Big Bill Broonzy – John Henry

19.) Mahalia Jackson – Keep Your Hand on the Plow (a.k.a. Gospel Plow, or Hold On)

20.) The Blind Boys of Alabama – Let Us Break Bread Together

21.) Concordia Publishing House – Lift Every Voice and Sing

22.) The Fairfield Four – Lonesome Valley (a.k.a. You Got to Walk That Lonesome Valley)

23.) The Proclaimers – Lord, I Want to Be a Christian

24.) The Dixie Hummingbirds – Nobody Knows the Trouble I’ve Seen

25.) The Golden Gospel Singers – Oh Freedom!

26.) Bruce Springsteen – Oh, Mary Don’t You Weep

27.) Curtis Mayfield & The Impressions – People Get Ready

28.) Aretha Franklin – Precious Lord, Take My Hand (a.k.a. Take My Hand, Precious Lord)

29.) Sweet Honey in the Rock – Run, Mourner, Run

30.) The Golden Gate Quartet – Run On (God’s Gonna Cut You Down)

31.) Nina Simone – Sinnerman

32.) Beth Nielsen Chapman – Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child (a.k.a. Motherless Child)

33.) Albertina Walker – Stand by Me

34.) The Moses Hogan Singers – Steal Away

35.) Etta James – Swing Low, Sweet Chariot

36.) Sweet Honey in the Rock – Sylvie (a.k.a. Bring Me a Little Water, Sylvie)

37.) Sweet Honey in the Rock – There Is a Balm in Gilead

38.) Sweet Honey in the Rock – Wade in the Water

39.) Bernice Johnson Reagon – We Are Climbing Jacob’s Ladder

40.) Sweet Honey in the Rock – We Shall Not Be Moved (a.k.a. I Shall Not Be Moved)

More songs to investigate:

Let me know if I missed any of your favorites, or if you have a favorite recording of a particular song that you’d like to share. Cheers!

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