So You Want to Sing Spirituals

Although Negro spirituals can trace their history back to the folk songs of the African continent, their first entry into the art song repertoire occurred barely a century ago with the publication of “Deep River” by Harry T. Burleigh in 1916.  Their presence in the repertoire has not been without controversy, however.  Some have questioned whether the sorrow songs of slavery would be diluted by forcing them into the mold of the European art song format.  Caucasians and other vocalists who are not of the African diaspora have questioned whether they have “permission” to sing concert spirituals, especially using dialect. Even the choice whether to use Negro spirituals, Black spirituals, Afro-American spirituals or African American spirituals has sparked discussion among those who question which term is appropriate.

Still, singers are discovering that it is difficult to resist the powerful pull of the spirituals’ soul-stirring words and music as they search for opportunities to enrich and diversify their vocal repertoire. The spirituals’ melodies are often familiar, and the sacred texts often tell biblical stories from a different perspective. Mostly, though, spirituals tell the story of a people who created the sorrow songs, the songs of defiance, and the songs of deliverance as they bore the burdens of slavery.

In So You Want to Sing Spirituals: A Guide for Performers, soprano and music historian Randye Jones gathers into one resource information musicians will find pertinent to developing an understanding of the vocal style.  The book explores the history of spirituals–from its folk song roots, through the transformation to choral and solo vocal concert performance, to its development into art song, followed by a discussion of the lives and recorded works of several composers and singers who have contributed significantly to the concert spiritual repertoire. Jones also delves into the performance practice of spirituals, especially when and how to use dialect in performance. There is a discussion about the various controversies related to singing concert spirituals, including the question of whether the performance of spirituals should be open to all singers no matter their race.

In addition to the foreword by George Shirley, contributors to So You Want to Sing Spirituals are: Casey Robards (collaborative piano), Emery Stephens and Caroline Helton (art songs by African American composers), Barbara Steinhaus (interpretative guidelines for studio teachers), Patricia Trice (concert spiritual choral music historical overview), Timothy Sharp (development of spirituals as sacred choral music), Felicia Barber (dialect in concert spiritual choral music), Scott McCoy (singing and vocal science), and Wendy LeBorgne (general physical wellbeing). The book and series editor is Matthew Hoch.

Also available are links to extensive supplemental content, including brief composer biographies, bibliographies of selected music books, scores, and sound recordings, a categorized guide on spirituals with biblical references and vocal anthology placement, lists of song anthologies that include concert spirituals for solo voice or for choir, a list of song anthologies that include songs by African American composers, as well as online resources related to specific chapters of the book.

While So You Want to Sing Spirituals is intended primarily for classically trained solo singers and choral ensembles, there is content suited to collaborative instrumentalists, studio instructors, and choir directors as well as others in the world of music who want to learn more about this vocal musical style. Voice teachers and coaches will also find the book helpful when selecting music and representative recordings to assist their students in developing the relevant technical and stylistic approaches to singing spirituals. It would also be helpful to instrumentalists–especially keyboard players–and conductors who may be working with singers on this repertoire, and librarians who wish to acquire books, scores, recordings, and other resources to support their patrons who are interested in Negro spirituals.

So You Want to Sing Spirituals is published by Rowman & Littlefield. So You Want to Sing: Guides for Performers and Professionals is a series of works devoted to providing a complete survey of what it means to sing within a particular genre. Each contribution functions as a touchstone work for not only professional singers, but students and teachers of singing. Titles in the series offer a common set of topics so readers can navigate easily the various genres addressed in each volume. This series is produced under the direction of the National Association of Teachers of Singing, the leading professional organization devoted to the science and art of singing.

So You Want to Sing Series

Order information for So You Want to Sing Spirituals is available at You can also order the book from, with the author’s page available at

Reviews of So You Want to Sing Spirituals

This guide for the study and performance of spirituals provides not only a wonderful overview of the history of this musical style, but also practical suggestions and advice for the vocalist and teacher…, this volume is an important addition to continue growing the diversity and inclusivity of different musical styles in vocal training programs.

— Christine Edwards (2020): So You Want to Sing Spirituals: A Guide for Performers, Music Reference Services Quarterly, DOI: 10.1080/10588167.2020.1824571. Also available at at

So You Want to Sing Spirituals is an exemplary title in this series. Jones offers a well researched and well written overview of spirituals, and contributions by guest authors make this volume a rich resource for both avocational and professional performers. It is significant, as noted by Jones, that this book was published on the 400th anniversary of the arrival of the first slave trader ship to the United States. This book is an invaluable tool for moving beyond cultural misappropriation to artistic appreciation, and is a useful addition to the library of all musicians who study and perform this repertoire.

— Debra Greschner (Nov/Dec 2020): Journal of Singing, p. 283-4. Available at

Jones herself indicates that the book is intended for both the initiate and the experienced musician. Even so, she provides extensive additional resources throughout the book and on the companion website for even deeper study. By drawing upon her own knowledge and experience in both researching and performing spirituals, and by including the input of several other recognized experts in the field, Jones provides a valuable, all-angles exploration of this underperformed genre with this publication.

— Brian Manternach (July/August 2021): Classical Singer, p. 36-37. Available at:; magazine issue:

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Soprano Randye Jones and Pianist Marlys Grimm in All-Spirituals Recital, 2015

If you have questions or comments about The Art of the Concert Spiritual, please contact Randye Jones at Thanks for visiting!