"she sang, to herself at first, something without particular tune or words, repetitively, mournful and plaintive"

Dilsey’s sombre, repetitive singing is reminiscent of the spirituals originally sung by black slaves during the antebellum era. These accompanied labour and were characterized by strong rhythm, improvisation, recurring patterns and overlapping call-and-response lines. The songs were both a communal expression of suffering under oppression and a means of alleviating its burden. Often they were underpinned by the affirmation of religious faith. In the 20th century, these songs had a profound influence on the music of blues singers.


Read W. E. B. Du Bois’ powerful and perceptive writings on spirituals — or ‘sorrow songs’ — here.


Listen to a recording of a slave spiritual entitled 'What Band is This?': 


Swing Low Sweet Chariot
Public DomainSwing Low Sweet Chariot - Credit: Radiex
Watch members of Friends of Negro Spirituals talk about what the songs mean to them: