The spirituals that developed within the African-American tradition still form the core of the melodies and lyrics that make up the American folk song treasury. These spirituals, typically composed around Bible passages that poetically describe a longing for salvation and freedom, were originally sung among enslaved people in the American South.
Scholars have catalogued approximately 6,000 African-American spirituals. Some fell into the category of work songs. Others focused on uplifting lyrics describing life in a better world to come. Still others served as psychological supports that helped enslaved men and women keep a measure of their individuality and dignity under inhuman conditions.
Many of these songs became widely known during the abolition movement of the mid-19th century. They were particularly popular among “conductors” and “passengers” along the Underground Railroad, the network of safehouses through which slaves escaped north into freedom. Many scholars believe that the lyrics of some of the songs held deliberate clues that helped escaping slaves on their way along the Underground Railroad.
There is not universal consensus about this issue, or even regarding the precise provenance of each song. However, it is certain that many were used during the days of slavery to encourage thoughts of freedom, and to provide solace and spiritual sustenance to enslaved people. Here are five of the most important such spirituals:
1. “Go Down, Moses”
In “Go Down, Moses,” the lyrics describe the escape of the ancient Israelites, led by Moses, as they fled Pharaoh’s armies. The first sheet music publication of a form of this song, entitled “The Song of the Contrabands,” appeared in 1861. Some scholars trace its first widespread use to 1862. It is said to have served as a fighting anthem for escaped slaves sheltered at Fort Monroe, nicknamed “Freedom’s Fortress,” in Virginia.
Tubman herself earned the nickname “Moses” for her role in freeing enslaved people, so it is easy to find double references in the song. The ancient Israelites and African-American slaves were both “oppressed so hard they could not stand.” And Tubman took on the responsibility of saying to modern-day Pharaohs, “let my people go.”
For her biography of Harriet Tubman, published in 1869, author Sarah Bradford was able to speak directly to her subject. According to Bradford’s book, Tubman used both “Go Down, Moses” and another hymn, “Thorny Desert,” to alert waiting slaves that she was nearby, ready and able to help them escape to freedom. Tubman’s first-person account further supports the conclusion that at least some spirituals carried a double, coded meaning, and were deliberately used as tools in the fight against slavery.
2. “Follow the Drinking Gourd”
“When the sun comes back, and the first quail calls, follow the drinking gourd,” say the opening lines of this song. The lyrics continue, asserting that an “old man” will be waiting to show the way to freedom. Some scholars believe there is strong evidence to suggest that “Follow the Drinking Gourd” encoded instructions for escaping slavery by navigating according to the position of the Big Dipper, popularly called the “Drinking Gourd” among enslaved African-Americans.
The Big Dipper points toward the North Star, which slaves are said to have used as a marker to keep them bearing north. The Newark Museum, in Newark, New Jersey, has prepared an analysis of each line of the song, comparing it to landmarks known to have appeared along many slaves’ escape routes.
Other researchers aren’t sure that this song is even that old, pointing to its first known publication in 1928. Regardless, it continues to serve as a striking “map” song that illustrates the way escaping slaves used landmarks in the natural world on their path to freedom.
3. “Michael, Row the Boat Ashore”
“Jordan River is deep and wide, hallelujah, milk and honey on the other side, hallelujah.” It’s not heard to hear an echo of an enslaved person’s longing for freedom. A number of music historians trace “Michael, Row the Boat Ashore” back to Civil War days, noting that it may have first been written down on St. Helena Island near South Carolina.
St. Helena lies at a geographic focal point of the distinctive and linguistically rich African-American Gullah creole culture. Traditional folklore surrounding St. Michael depicts him as a guide of souls to heaven. The Jordan River itself represents the experience of crossing a divide, from life into death and eternal reward—or into freedom from slavery.
The Reverend Velma Maia Thomas, a contemporary public historian and author, has noted that rivers figure prominently in African-American spirituals, and for good reason. Rivers cleanse and heal. They also represent a transition from one state of being to another. Coincidentally, rivers conceal the scent of humans from any dogs tracking them.
4. “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot”
The Jordan River in “Swing Low” equals the Ohio River, and the “band of angels” are the “conductors,” who are “coming for to carry me home.” As Thomas explained it in an interview recorded for a recent PBS broadcast, slave owners would hear what they thought were innocuous lyrics about heaven. But, “next day, two or three people would be gone.”
“Swing Low” was among Harriet Tubman’s favorite songs, according to scholars at Eastern Illinois University. Its authorship is often credited to Wallace Wallis, a mid-19th century enslaved man (possibly later a freedman) who worked on an Oklahoma plantation owned by members of the Choctaw Nation.
Another account credits it to enslaved woman Sarah Hannah Sheppard, whose daughter Ella Sheppard would grow up to join the Fisk Jubilee Singers. What is certain is that the Fisk Jubilee Singers were among the numerous African-American groups who performed the song widely in the last years of the 19th century.
5. “Steal Away to Jesus”
This song, also often credited to Wallace Wallis, is frequently cited as a coded song. The title does refer to spiritual salvation after death. The determined, stately, slow music is filled with a sense of longing and melancholy, even of resignation to whatever fate will bring. But the song also describes the sense of escaping into a physical state of freedom. “I ain’t got long to stay here,” say the lyrics.
“Steal Away to Jesus” has been recorded by numerous performers over recent generations, no time more memorably than when renowned gospel singer Mahalia Jackson guest-starred on jazz great Nat King Cole’s television variety program in 1957 (a clip is available on YouTube). Cole joined Jackson at the mic for the final verses of the song. Their rich voices blend into an incomparable listening experience—one filled with deeper historic meanings.