As an adjective, spiritual relates to the human spirit or soul. As a noun, however, it’s a type of song that plays an integral role in the cultural fabric of South Carolina.
Thought to have been brought over in the 19th century by enslaved Africans arriving in Charleston, the spiritual is typically sung acapella in an African singing style known as “call-and-response.” The music—often sung in the Gullah dialect—is accompanied by various forms of percussion, including hand clapping and foot stomping, and is described as “plantation songs” that often tell the story of suffering and survival. Different than gospel, which is more of a 20th-century genre of Christian music, spirituals have been passed down orally for generations, and continue to preserve the Gullah culture of the Lowcountry. In 1999, the spiritual became South Carolina’s official state music.
Keeping the Tradition Alive
The spiritual has been kept alive by groups that preserve or perform this homage to their Gullah roots. The Plantation Singers of Charleston was founded in 1996 as an acapella and percussion singing group and can be heard most Sundays at the Gospel Brunch at Hall’s Chophouse in downtown Charleston, as well as national and international concerts and performances.
Ann Caldwell and the Magnolia Singers is another acapella group that performs spirituals, Gullah poetry and storytelling that bring the spirit and spirits of their Gullah ancestors to life. More recently, spirituals have taken center stage as the Charleston-based, Gullah-rooted quintet, Ranky Tanky, released their debut album, Ranky Tanky, in 2017 and subsequently won a Grammy Award for Best Regional Roots Album for their 2019 release, Good Time.