Most people think of gospel music as a southern phenomenon, but according to Horace Clarence Boyer in The Golden Era of Gospel, its seeds actually sprouted in New England in 1734. It started with Rev. Jonathan Edwards, the New England preacher who launched a religious revival known as The Great Awakening. Traditional, slow, long-meter hymns didn’t work for his passionate services. More upbeat hymns with faster tempos were needed, began to surface, and were published. The fervent preaching style and impassioned music of the Great Awakening swept down the eastern coast and into the southern states, where enslaved African Americans who attended services with their owners saw similarities between their chains of bondage and those of Moses’ people.
The enslaved also linked the promise of an afterlife with earthly freedom. Since they were “allowed” to sing only about Christian ethics and ideals, they eventually turned the hymns they learned into their own form of religious folk music. These songs became known as Negro spirituals. Hidden in them was a secret code to give one another messages of hope and freedom. Canaan meant Canada, the land of freedom. Going up yonder meant going north. Moses was a name for Harriet Tubman, founder of the underground railroad. And Swing Low, Sweet Chariot was a song about taking that underground railroad north to freedom. (The swinging low of the sweet chariot is the rocking rhythm of a train.) In the midst of excruciatingly difficult lives, slaves used these songs to inspire inner strength and courage. By borrowing from Protestant hymns, reworking them, and then making up new melodies and harmonies, Negro spirituals became the first authentically American sacred music.