"Negro Spirituals" was one of the many literary results of Thomas Wentworth Higginson's years as colonel of the First South Carolina Volunteers, the initial regiment of freed slaves to fight for Union forces during the Civil War. The text represents the first substantial published collection of African American spiritual lyrics. When it appeared in June 1867 in the Atlantic Monthly, the magazine to which Higginson regularly contributed, no previous work had reproduced more than a dozen spirituals, and no one had attempted the kind of analysis of the performances that Higginson sets out to do in these pages.

The thirty-seven spirituals Higginson transcribes address themes which range from the timely (reflections on slavery in "Many Thousand Go") to the timeless (the funereal "I Know Moon- Rise"). Those particularly interested in the spirituals might want to look first at the Index of Spiritual Titles, which links titles to their song texts within the article itself (note that Higginson's titles are not always the same as those later scholars have given to the same or similar songs).

Important as they are, the lyrics, however, should not overshadow the context in which they appear. Higginson's commentary on the songs reveals as much about how they were performed as it does about his own relationship to his troops. His observation that his dialect spelling may seem odd "because [he] could get no nearer" inadvertently reveals his own preoccupation with finding a place among an African American community that was so clearly foreign, yet just as clearly attractive, to him. Put simply, "Negro Spirituals" demonstrates Higginson's own attempt to "pass" even as it shows, through its author's repeated expressions of ignorance and doubt about his subject, just how futile that attempt is.

The text of "Negro Spirituals" used is that of the 1867 article, although this later appeared (in identical form) in Higginson's memoir of the war, Army Life in A Black Regiment. I have made few alterations to the original text, aside from a handful of minor punctuation changes. The dialect spellings are Higginson's.

This project brings together a number of audiovisual components to supplement the text, including portraits of Higginson and the Fisk Jubilee Singers, the first professional African American group to perform spirituals in concert halls around the world. I have also included audio clips from spirituals from the South Carolina region, which might give us a sense of the kind of performance Higginson actually heard. Since these are recorded in .AU format, it may take a few minutes for them to download; your patience is appreciated.

For more detailed analyses of "Negro Spirituals" and of Higginson's career and work, see the bibliography, which brings together a short list of relevant primary and secondary sources. A good place to start is Eileen Southern's The Music of Black Americans, which presents a thorough overview of postbellum "discovery" of African American spirituals by whites. Edelstein's biography is a reliable source for information on Higginson, and once scarce but now gradually emerging critical studies of his work are represented by the articles by Picker and Looby. Thanks are due the staff at UVa's Digital Media and Music Center for their help with the audio files. Comments or suggestions about this site are welcome and can be sent to John M. Picker.

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