Spirituals are religious folk songs that originated with blacks in the American South. Many of the lyrics are based on Exodus, and call upon God to free the slaves, end hard labor, and carry the blacks to a better land. Spirituals frequently contain a chorus that's repeated after every line (such as "Let my people go!" in Go Down Moses or "Comin' for to carry me home" in Swing Low Sweet Chariot). This structure allows everyone to participate in the song, including illiterates and people who didn't yet know the lyrics. Musically, spirituals tend sound like dirges, but they're strangely uplifting dirges at that--they always contain a glimmer of hope in their descriptions of pain and suffering.

Some authors note that slaves used spirituals to send information to other slaves or Underground Railroad members--Swing Low Sweet Chariot meant that the slave was willing to take a chance at freedom, for example, while O Canaan signified an escape to Canada.