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NATS American Negro Spiritual Categories

 Held every other year, in odd-numbered years.

Category Info

Beginning in the fall of 2020, The American Negro Spiritual Categories will be added to regularly scheduled regional
student auditions with the top five regional winners advancing to the NSA rounds, as with all other NSA-eligible
categories. Chapters are also eligible and encouraged to add this competition to chapter auditions. Where
applicable, Chapter auditions serve as qualifying rounds for advancement into region auditions. The American
Negro Spiritual Categories will alternate with the Hall Johnson Spirituals Category nationally, with the Hall Johnson
Category offered in even numbered years.

Although most of the composers of the spirituals we now sing are unknown, the melodies and lyrics have been
arranged by hundreds of arrangers in many different styles. The spirituals approved for performance in NATS
auditions are the classical arrangements of the North American Negro Spirituals and arranged by classical North
American composers. The terminology for singing in the American Negro Spiritual categories is outlined and
defined in the classical Audition Terminology.

While the American Negro Spirituals’ geneses are of and by African Americans, they tell the stories in music of the history of our country. NATS encourages all singers to explore, study, and perform these beautiful songs.


The American Negro Spirituals are the folk songs created by the enslaved Africans after their arrival in North
America between 1619 and 1860. Although slavery ended with Abraham Lincoln signing the Emancipation
Proclamation, which went into effect January 1, 1863, the enslaved people in Texas did not receive the notice until
June 19, 1865, hence the Juneteeth Celebration.

The songs created and sung by enslaved women, men and children were born in North America and recant with
dignity, resolve and sometimes joy, their stories of life, death, faith, hope, escape, and survival. These melodies
and stories have been passed down orally from generation to generation in the plantation fields, in churches and in camp meetings and have presently taken their places on concert hall stages and recital series around the world. Some may wonder why NATS has chosen to use the classification American Negro Spiritual as opposed to a more updated term, and perhaps more contemporary classification like African-American Spirituals. Dr. Everett McCorvey, Founder of the American Spiritual Ensemble and a researcher in this area, comments: “The term American Negro Spirituals speaks to the history, the suffering, the hope and the resolve of a people who were able to sing through their suffering and tell and re-tell their heroic stories of triumph and survival through these songs. It is a story and a history that hopefully will never be forgotten. And while the songs were born out of this very dark period in our American History, these songs are now sung, celebrated, and revered all around the world. While some of the language in the music is updated in order to be sung in a more contemporary style and to remove the barrier of dialect, the melodies, the sentiment and the stories of the spirituals are over 400 years old and need to be sung and remembered. I would encourage teachers and singers to be comfortable with calling the melodies what they are. They are American Negro Spirituals. Please feel free to call them Negro Spirituals or just Spirituals or American Negro Spirituals, but the ultimate goal is for these melodies to be celebrated and sung by all.

                        – Dr. Everett McCorvey, Founder and Director
                           American Spiritual Ensemble

                           Artistic Director, National Chorale and Orchestra
                           New York, New York

                           Professor of Voice and Endowed Chair in Opera Studies
                           University of Kentucky
                           Lexington, Kentucky


• Both arrangements and compositions in the style of Negro Spirituals are acceptable
• Simplicity in melody is of utmost importance
• Historical meanings/reference and stories of text are also of chief importance
• Stories and the melodies of compositions must be reflective of the historical category
• Arrangements must reflect and respect the classical style in accompaniments with a vocal line respectful of the traditional melodies

Acceptable Arrangements
*See list of authorized repertoire below
Spirituals have been composed and arranged by a variety of people of every ethnicity and background. Our purpose in this category is to educate our students and colleagues about the beauty, simplicity, historical relevance and amazing wealth of music in this category that risks extinction of value and performance on the classical stage. Many questions have arisen regarding acceptability. In the effort to educate, we are listing some examples of discussions and considerations of spirituals composed and/or arranged by persons who are not African American.

• Robert MacGimsey, “Sweet Little Jesus Boy” a classic example of a non black composer, raised on a plantation, fully immersed in black culture who has fully captured the spirit of the original Negro Spiritual
• Eli Villanueva 6 Spirituals set with island flavor, unusual, classical accompaniments, respecting and retaining the traditional melodies

We suggest students and teachers study the great performances through online resources and explore topics about great American composers, especially those of the 19th and 20th centuries.

• The American Negro Spiritual is to be sung in the classical art song tradition.
• Simplicity in melody and vocal line is of utmost importance.
• Strophic songs written with multiple verses may be sung with moderate embellishments after the original line has been established in both voice and accompaniment. Moderation is the key. Suggestions include varying tempo, dynamics and adding higher or lower pitches within the key in ending cadences.
• Strophic songs with multiple verses (more than 4-6) may eliminate some of the verses that do not change the story or historical content (not more than half of the verses may be dropped, for example if there are 5 verses, not more than 2 may be dropped.
• Classical singing delivery please, with proper technique – not musical theatre, gospel, and/or pop.

For additional information on arrangers, composers, performers and the historical content and significance of the American Negro Spiritual, the committee recommends the following:

Allen, William Francis, Charles Pickard Ware, and Lucy McKim Garrison, eds. Slave Songs of the United States: The Classical 1867 Anthology. New York: Dover Publications, 1995.

Armstrong, Anton E. “Practical Performance Practice in the African American Slave Song,” in Heather Buchanan and Matthew W. Mehaffey, eds. Teaching Music Through Performance in Choir, Volume 1. Chicago: GIA Publications, Inc., 2005.

Cone, James H. The Spirituals and the Blues. Maryknoll, New York: Orbis Books, 1972.

Dunn-Powell, Rosephanye. “The African-American Spiritual: Preparation and Performance Considerations” NATS Journal, vol 61, issue 5, 2005 May/Jun, pp. 469-475.

Guenther, Eileen. In Their Own Words: Slave Life and the Power of Spirituals. St. Louis: MorningStar Music Publishers, 2016.

Johnson, James Weldon. The Books of American Negro Spirituals. Da Capo Press; Revised Edition 2002

Jones, Arthur C. Wade in the Water: The Wisdom of the Spirituals. Maryknoll, New York: Orbis Books, 1993.

Jones, Randye. The Spirituals Database, The Art of the Negro Spiritual: A Century of Negro Spirituals, 2015

Southern, Eileen. The Music of Black Americans: A History, 3rd ed. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1997.

Thomas, André J. Way over in Beulah Lan’: Understanding and Performing the Negro Spiritual. Dayton, Ohio: Heritage Music Press, 2007.

The Negro Spirituals Workshop in France, for information verifying the authenticity of texts/stories;


  1. High School 
    1. $1,200 - 1st place in each category
    2. $600 - 2nd place in each category
    3. $450 - 3rd place in each category
  2. First thru Third Year College Age
    1. $1,200 - 1st place in each category
    2. $600 - 2nd place in each category
    3. $450 - 3rd place in each category
  3. Fourth/Fifth Year College Age thru Graduate
    1. $1,600 - The American Spiritual Ensemble Prize for 1st place in each category
    2. $900 - 2nd place in each category
    3. $500 - 3rd place in each category

Official Repertoire

Arrangements in classical style of the North American Negro Spiritual, by composers similar to the style of Hall Johnson, R. Nathaniel Dett, Florence Price, Moses Hogan, Edward Boatner, Undine Smith Moore, James Weldon Johnson, J. Rosamond Johnson, Margaret Bonds and others. The classical style excludes Gospel, Blues, and Jazz music. (Click HERE for list of approved arrangements and collections.)

*Authorized scores of repertoire not found on the publications list, can be vetted/approved by contacting one of the following NATS members:

  1. Alexis Davis-Hazell
  2. Barbara Hill-Moore
  3. Everett McCorvey
  4. Marcía Porter


  1. This competition will only take place in odd-numbered years. Region auditions occur throughout the year with some regions holding the regional auditions in the Fall of the preceding year.
  2. Open to any singer who meets the requirements listed below:
LENGTH OF STUDY AGE LIMIT   TIME                       Voice Type

all repertoire is sung from memory

16 High School
American Negro Spiritual

No limit 14-­‐19

8 minutes


Three American Negro Spirituals contrasting by composer, tempo and text.
*See publications list

17 First Through Third Year College Age
American Negro Spiritual

0-­‐3 years
post high school

10 minutes


Three American Negro Spirituals contrasting by composer, tempo and text.
*See publications list

18 Fourth/Fifth Year College Age and Graduate Age
American Negro Spiritual

4+ years
post high school
30 12 minutes All

Four American Negro Spirituals contrasting by composer, tempo and text.
*See publications list

All interested performers will apply for this category as part of regional student auditions with the top five regional singers advancing to the NSA rounds as with all other NSA-eligible categories. Chapters are also eligible and encouraged to add this competition to chapter auditions. Where applicable Chapter auditions serve as qualifying rounds for advancement into region auditions.