Folk Songs and Spirituals: Their Magic as Piano and Choral Music Arrangements

Thinking about my childhood experiences while listening to folk music and spirituals, I remember how they seemed to bypass my head and go directly to my emotions, or my heart. When I started taking piano lessons, there were a few pieces that also transported my emotions to this magical place. I couldn’t articulate why, but I knew the feelings were real.

Brenda Dillon

As I started attending youth groups at the church, I remember how it felt when several of us would sing these songs, especially around campfires, or on other occasions. I also remember riding on school buses with the band and how singing this music seemed to bond us together without acknowledging the feeling aloud. And when I first experienced the joy of harmonizing these songs as we traveled those many miles in the Texas Panhandle, I never wanted the singing or the trip to end. I didn’t know at the time how matching the melody in intervals of thirds and sixths would create something special. Or how holding a lower note could be so satisfying as the melody moved about it.

Attending a small school, I had an opportunity to accompany the high school choir when I was in the seventh grade. I remember how different these songs sounded when they were sung in four-part harmony. Being in the band had exposed me to various harmonies, but the magic of singing the words was another growth opportunity.

As a piano major in college, I first learned that music could be divided into two groups – folk songs and art songs. I knew that the bulk of my collegiate repertoire focused on art music. Most of my peers also focused on art music, especially the instrumentalists. Occasionally a vocal major included a folk song or a spiritual in their repertoire.

Later I decided to research why I was so attracted to folk songs and spirituals. Folk music was passed down orally and was often related to a national culture or geographic area. Most of the songs were public domain as an author’s name was not attached. It was fascinating to think about the origin of these songs and how they might have been the result of a group of people improvising or experimenting with the melody and the lyrics.

Much has been written about the origin of spirituals. As the religion of their owners was primarily Christianity and slaves were required to attend church services of their masters, that was the religion permitted in the fields or the church meetings. They also saw parallels to their own experiences as they learned Bible stories. Spirituals were initially called ‘sorrow songs’ as they reflected the slave’s desire for freedom.

Lyrics of spirituals would sometimes include messages about escaping captivity or how significant water was to that escape. The Jordan River was a signal for the Ohio River. Reaching the other side of that river to the ‘promised land’ meant being free of slavery. “Wade in the Water” told of escaping through rivers and streams where dogs couldn’t track their scent. Achieving freedom became a mission of the slaves and was often called ‘God’s Chariot.’

Piano Fun – Folk Songs and Spirituals

When I was invited by Hal Leonard to write a book about folk songs and spirituals for the PIANO FUN series for adult beginners, it was like coming home again to visit all those songs of my past and think about how they had positively impacted my childhood.

Piano Fun-Folk Songs and Spirituals for the Adult Beginner

Piano Fun-Folk Songs and Spirituals for the Adult Beginner

It was gratifying to know that I had access to a huge repertoire of these songs and that I was free to experiment with them since they were all public domain. I did have to keep the arrangements at a lower skill level so they could be accessible to students who already knew how to read music and had an interest in chords. The book would include a lead sheet and arrangement of each song and I could also combine two songs in the same arrangement. An example was combining “Water Is Wide/ Wade in the Water.”

Once I confirmed the melody and the lyrics of each song, I decided to use chord progressions different than those I had learned as a child. It was fun to select chords that gave the tune a different flavor, and also uniquely enriched the song. Not only did I include triads in root and close position, but I could also use seventh chords, added 6th chords and suspended chords.

I also had fun choosing the accompanying style of each chord and to decide when to use block chords, broken chords or passing tones. Even when I chose broken chords, I could stretch them across two or more measures as half notes. I could also use a different broken chord in subsequent measures as long as they weren’t too difficult for the left hand. I enjoyed using a walking bass in “Go, Tell It on the Mountain.” Because I chose an unusual chord progression for “My Lord, What a Morning,” I decided to use block chords in half notes that moved predominantly step-wise.

I modulated between two keys when it enriched the sound and wasn’t difficult for the pianist to make the change. “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot” began in the key of G and modulated to the key of C for the final section. When I combined “Water Is Wide/Wade in the Water” in the same piece, “Water Is Wide” is in the key of G major and “Wade in the Water” is in the key of E minor.

For compositional variety in the arrangements, I used grace notes, syncopation, tempo changes, and other devices to enrich the sound. I highly recommend Carol Klose’s book for excellent ideas. (Piano Teacher’s Guide to Creative Compositions)

Choral Arranging

Although I have no vocal background, I decided to join a church choir and learn as much as I could about choral arranging. I remembered my fascination long ago on how the music moved to another dimension when the four parts were sung, and how a different texture emerged when the harmonies were combined. Also, I wanted to learn how to fit the four parts together (soprano, alto, tenor, bass) as they moved independently.

PIANO FUN – Folk Songs and Spirituals includes separate piano arrangements of “Deep River” and “I’ve Got Peace like a River.” I chose to combine these two into a choral arrangement because they both emphasize water. The slaves believed they could taste freedom if they could just get across the Jordan River with its mighty waters that flowed into distant places.

I began with the sopranos and altos singing the lyrics while the tenors and basses hummed separate moving parts.

Next I shifted to “I’ve Got Peace like a River” to establish that melody.

Since the lyrics of “I’ve Got Peace” are repetitive, I reverted again to “Deep River” on the next section.

Next I had a section with the altos and tenors singing the melody to “I’ve Got Peace like a River” while the sopranos and basses sang “Deep River.”

I concluded with all four parts singing a triumphant ending. ‘Oh my Lord I am-a comin’ – Oh my Lord I’m almost there.’


Some of my challenges in choral arranging included deciding which part of the chord should be given to my four choices (SATB) and when doubling the voice made for a richer sound. I also had to decide when the piano accompaniment complemented the vocal parts or overpowered them. One of my greatest challenges was how to combine two spirituals into one without one of them getting lost.


For those who have never tried arranging, I recommend beginning with folk songs and spirituals. The majority of them are public domain and that gives the arranger many options of chord choices and other creative devices that make them more interesting. Choral arranging was another step to my personal challenge and I suggest studying arrangers who use sounds you particularly like. The best time to start down the arranging path is today. You won’t regret it!

Click here to view publications authored by Brenda Dillon.

Teaching Yesterday’s Child
Barbara Kreader Skalinder
Making My Own Music–Teaching Beyond Technique, Repertoire, Reading, and Exam Preparation
Joanne Burrows