The Songs of Freedom
Everyone’s heard an old Negro spiritual either in church, the movies, and sometimes school. They were songs of drudgery, hardship and hope. “Every tone was a testimony against slavery and a prayer to God for deliverance from chains. Slaves sing most when they are most unhappy. The songs of the slave represent the sorrows of his heart; and he is relieved by them, only as an aching heart is relieved by its tears.” Frederick Douglas. Spirituals – or slave songs – were much more than primitive hymns of endurance and a better life ‘on the other side’. When sung by slaves, spirituals passed secret messages and information to each other about the Underground Railroad. The lyrics were part of an intricate system leaving no incriminating evidence for owners and overseers to find. Codes hidden in the lyrics advised slaves when, how and where to escape, and gave other signals.
Most slaves could not read or write and it was illegal to teach them. So, the spirituals provided a way to communicate in code that was only understood by those connected to the Underground Railroad. Heard on a literal level by outsiders, but when singing the refrains, the call and response style of singing, and the rhythmic drumming sounds made by dancing feet, slaves could decipher hidden meanings. Since songs were a part their daily lives, this was easy for them to do unnoticed, as they were encouraged to sing (they sang while working so the overseer knew where they were at all times.)
Like the coded quilt patterns, spirituals were passed on from one place to another. When real trains came along, the vocabulary changed, and the word ‘chariot’ was replaced by ‘train’. Consider the song, “The Gospel Train’s a Comin’,” the ‘gospel train’ was a code name for the Underground Railroad. When slaves heard this song sung, it meant a Conductor was among them or runaway slaves (Passengers) were close by giving them a swift chance to escape. In “This Train is Bound for Glory,” ‘glory’ meant freedom. Yet, caution was taken when they sang train songs, because these were easier to interpret by outsiders than traditional spirituals with biblical references. Let’s visit some old standards:
“Oh, Freedom” is a song of bliss and determination. It was sung in celebration once a Passenger found freedom. Code words ‘darkness’ and ‘glory’ were also used to show places of refuge along the way (darkness meant you were closer to bondage; glory was closer to freedom.)
“No More Auction Block for Me”. Slave auctions were degrading and horrendous. With family separation, inhumane conditions and punishments, slaves usually sang this song in defiance under their breath, or out of earshot of a master or overseer.
“Wade In The Water.” To warn runaway slaves of danger, Harriet Tubman sang this song, alerting them to abandon the path and get into the water. This powerful spiritual gave useful information to fugitives: Travel near rivers and streams for cover, safety, food and direction. Travel along the water’s edge or across a body of water to throw blood hounds off their scent.
“ Let Us Break Bread Together On Our Knees” was a call for a secret meeting/gathering in the morning before the sun rose to discuss escape plans and for prayer.
“Go Down Moses.” Since slaves weren’t permitted to read or write, they learned bible stories, and knew Moses led his people to freedom. They openly sang this seemingly harmless song, and outsiders never realized biblical interpretations; Moses (a Conductor, i.e., Harriet Tubman, John Brown, etc.) Pharaoh (the slaveholder), who never expected Israel (slaves) to escape Egypt (the South) on their own for the Promised Land (freedom.) The words are haunting: When Israel was in Egypt Land; let my people go …
They worked so hard they could not stand; let my people go … Go down, Moses, way down in Egypt Land; tell Old Pharaoh, let my people go.
“Now, Let Me Fly.” In African folklore, there are many stories of people who can fly. This song gave slaves hope and dreams of safe flight.
“Sinner Please Don’t Let This Harvest Pass.” To even discuss plans of escape could be life threatening, and not making it to the Promised Land was a slave’s fear. The night before a planned escape, they often sang this song as encouragement to those ready to make the journey to freedom.
“Trampin’” was sung by slaves who had been traveling on foot a long time. The idea of ‘tryin’ to make heaven my home’ allowed them to keep moving, even when the body and spirit were ready to give out.
“Follow The Drinking Gourd” was code for the Big Dipper. At night, slaves could find the constellation and locate the North Star. This was like Mapquest to a slave, giving very specific directions, and the lyrics “dead trees will show you the way” tell us the moss will be on the north side of the dead trees along the river, acting as a compass.
“Great Day” is a jubilee song. Free Blacks, abolitionists and supporters held church services, camp meetings and picnics to welcome escaped slaves who had marched into Zion (the north or Canada.)
“Deep River” was an amazing song on the Freedom Road. Escaped slaves found more safety by rivers and streams than by regular roads and paths. “Crossing Over Jordan” is also a biblical reference to freedom – ‘Jordan’ being the Ohio River.
“Steal Away” and “Swing Low Sweet Chariot” were Harriet Tubman’s favorite hymns. Known as “Moses,” the deliverer of her people,” after her own traumatic escape to freedom, she made 19 more trips, risked her life as Conductor, nurse and spy, guiding over 300 slaves safely to freedom with a $40,000 reward on her head, dead or alive. “Steal Away” was Ms. Tubman’s song announcing her arrival to Passengers signaling if the coast was clear. Those brave enough to go with her would ‘steal away’ to alert their relatives that they were leaving. ‘Chariot’ referred to carriages and wagons used to transport fleeing slaves. To ‘swing low’ also meant to creep low in the night undetected. It is said, Harriet sang the song with relatives gathered at her death bed.
Swing low, sweet chariot,
Comin’ for to carry me home!
…If you get there before I do, Comin’ for to carry me home,
Jes’ tell my friends that I’m a comin’ too, Comin’ for to carry me home…
Finally, “Free At Last” endures to this day. A song of trials, sacrifice and unflagging spirit needed to make the journey, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. ended his I Have a Dream speech with the lyrics of this song “Free at last, free at last, Thank God Almighty we’re free at last.”
Published in The Courier-Times, Feb. 2008