The lucky ones learned spirituals as children, from grandmothers whose own grandparents may have been slaves.
Not only did they memorize "Wade in the Water," but they heard how fleeing slaves trudged through rivers and creeks to escape search parties and their dogs.
"My grandmother taught me the spirituals as if my life depended on them," recalled University of Michigan law professor Sallyanne Payton, one of dozens of middle-aged African Americans who gathered in Los Angeles this weekend for a conference on Negro spirituals.
Now, she and others at the conference fear that the tradition is ebbing away.
Young people whose iPods resonate with hip-hop lack emotional ties to the thousands of spirituals composed and sung by slaves in the 18th- and 19th-century American South. Some musicians and churches overlook the often-somber lyrics and simple tunes -- with their intimations of a tragic past -- in favor of the more exuberant gospel tradition that followed, often featuring large swaying choirs, percussion and a strong beat.
That trend is evoking a sense of urgency nationally among some churches, musicians and teachers who are rushing to shore up interest in spiritual music before it fades away entirely.
"For many of us, this is a preservation project," said Payton, who grew up in Los Angeles. "A lot of baby boomers looked around and said, 'Oh my God, we've got to do something. Now.' "
Payton is among those participating in the three-day Negro Spiritual Institute at Holman United Methodist Church, in the West Adams neighborhood of Los Angeles, a large, 62-year-old church with a history of performing spirituals.
Adults and children alike learned about the roots of spiritual music, how to sing it and even how to dance to it.
They listened as a dozen musical groups performed spirituals and related music at a Friday night marathon, including a jazz trumpet solo of "When the Saints Go Marching In" and the Holman Bell Choir adaptation of "Deep River."
The walls of the church activities building vibrated with sound as singers in crimson, gold and lime-green robes flowed through the halls, other choirs warmed up in side rooms and black-clad teenage dancers in yellow head scarves performed stretches in the sanctuary.
The event will end with a concert of Negro spirituals by the Holman Church choir at 3 p.m. today at the church.
Although Holman has held its spiritual concerts annually for 48 years, its pastor, the Rev. Henry L. Masters, decided several years ago to add the Negro Spiritual Institute. This year, the event was held in conjunction with a four-day conference on music as a ministry that drew clergy, choir directors and musicians from around the country.
Masters compared his sense of urgency in strengthening the spiritual tradition with concerns in many other American churches that interest is ebbing in the old classical anthems and hymns.
He said he hoped the weekend's performances would show how much of modern music, including gospel and hip-hop, is grounded in the spiritual tradition.
One reason Holman has such a strong tie to spirituals is that one of its past members was Jester Hairston, a celebrated composer and arranger who died in 2000. He is credited with keeping the tradition alive in the music world with his arrangements of songs such as "Poor Man Lazarus."
His cousin, Bay Area composer Jacqueline B. Hairston, who trained at the Juilliard School and Columbia University, also is keenly interested in spirituals and has arranged them for opera stars Kathleen Battle and Leontyne Price.
She would travel to Los Angeles to learn from him and hear his stories.
"I was so excited," she told musicians and educators at a workshop. "I would literally sit on the floor at his feet with a tape recorder and a camera."
In her seminar, she pinpointed features of spirituals that originated in Africa: improvisation, syncopation, the "call-and-response" tradition in which one singer leads and other singers or a congregation follows. Spirituals are usually sung a cappella -- unaccompanied -- because plantation owners forbade slaves to use drums, she said.
Many were spontaneous compositions, created and molded by slaves working in cotton fields.
One slave might say he or she was not feeling well that day, and then sing the phrase, "Nobody knows the trouble I've seen" -- a phrase picked up by a nearby worker who might add, "Nobody knows ... but Jesus."
Saturday's sessions were aimed at introducing school-age children to spirituals.
Musician Aaron Nigel Smith taught the spiritual "I've Got Shoes" to seven girls and four boys, ages 5 to 11, interspersing pieces of history about slavery.
One boy raised his hand to ask the meaning of the phrase, "Ev'rybody talkin' 'bout Heav'n ain't goin' there."
That sprang from the days when slaves listened outside plantation owners' church services and pondered, "Why do they deserve to go to heaven and I don't?" Smith explained as he searched for a simple definition of hypocrisy.
Even though spirituals grew out of slavery, they conveyed optimism to those who sang them, some experts said.
"It allowed these people to have some hope in a situation that was not that hopeful," Smith told his class.
In fact, Hairston believes spirituals may experience a resurgence because they can be soothing, both to the singer and those who listen.
"It's one of those song types that really encourages the human spirit," she said.
To hear audio clips of two spirituals, go to www.latimes.com/spiritual.