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Today, these lyrics have crossed barriers and are sung in many churches across America as spirituals. However, such songs as Wade in the Water, Swing Low, Sweet Chariot, and Follow the Drinking Gourd, were once used as an important tool of survival by the slaves of the antebellum era. The content of many Negro spirituals consisted of a religious theme. However, Negro spirituals were not intended to be religious. The primary purpose of Negro spirituals was to mislead an overseer or the plantation owner.
Slaves were not allowed to have a political voice, but singing was permitted. Slaves were free to sing while working in the fields, or while performing various duties about the plantation. White Southerners viewed songs with biblical themes as non-threatening. A spiritual-singing slave was perceived as joyous and content. However, the seemingly joyous" music of the Negro slave was that of an unhappy people" (Dubois).
Spirituals were used as a political tool for slaves to voice their contempt, or stand up to an irate master by mumbling his feelings through song.
mislead an overseer or plantation owner. Messages were secretly concealed in every verse! Spirituals were not written, but transferred from slave to slave orally. In 1871, a group of students from Fisk University in Nashville, Tennessee, formed a choir called the Jubilee Singers. Fisk was an University designed to educate former slaves. This choir of Freedmen performed concerts to raise money for their school. The Jubilee singers helped to preserve the songs of the American slaves. Slaves were not allowed the opportunity of literacy, so spirituals were not written. This resulted in many forgotten lyrics.
escaping slaves during the antebellum era of the South.
Call and Response is a style of singing that was utilized by slaves under the watchful eye of an overseer. The West African culture traditionally used this style of singing in public gatherings and religious rituals (Wikipedia).
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As Shouts were transferred from the field to the Prayer House, they were accompanied with characteristics of African culture. Hand-clapping, foot-stomping, hypnotic dancing, and euphoric cries went along with syncopated singing. Negro spirituals were sung with a harmony of multiple rhythms and repeating verses (Johnson).
Africans worshipped a supreme being and many deities of a lower status. The use of Drums was essential in religious rituals. Once the African captives arrived on American soil, their traditional rituals and use of drums were banned plantation owners' were suspicious of the patterned beats of drums. Church services were limited to slaves. Many White Southerners feared that slaves may interpret the teaching of Jesus as being in favor of equality. Those who allowed their slaves the opportunity to attend church services did so in hopes that Christian slaves would be less likely to revolt (Spartacus educational).
However, the religion of the slaves was important to them. They were willing to risk the sting of the whip to steal away to clandestine meetings. Hid away by the cover of night, the slaves would sing spirituals while performing their African rituals. Spirituals, such as Steal Away, were often used to announce such meetings. Nat Turner, a slave who led a murderous revolt in 1831, used this song to secretly announce his furtive meetings (Steal Away).
It is evident that slaves embraced the biblical stories of the Bible. Many spirituals are seasoned with lyrics that discuss the stories of Egypt's biblical pharaoh, Moses, and the crucifixion of Jesus. Slaves covertly viewed the stories of the Old Testament as symbolic of their life of bondage. Therefore, the teachings of Christianity were merged with their African beliefs.
Desperate to escape inhuman treatment, slaves who attempted to flee was stigmatized as runaways. Coded songs used during escapes can be categorized as Map or Signal songs. Map songs were spirituals that secretly informed slaves of routes to take while escaping. Signal songs were songs of warning that alerted an escaping slave that trouble was near, while a different song was used to signal a slave that it was safe to proceed.
Quakers, free Blacks, and Native Americans assisted the fugitive slave through a secret network of way stations that provided food, shelter, and transportation to runaways-The Underground Railroad (wikipedia). A glossary of ambiguous terms was used in spirituals to pass along information and directions through the Underground Railroad. The terms Canaan, promise land, heaven or home was used as a cipher for Canada, the North, or Africa. Slaves referred to the abolitionist who guiding them to freedom as Moses or Angels. Slaves showed their contempt for those who held them in bondage by equating slavemasters to the Egyptian Pharaoh who refused to let the Hebrew slaves go. Pharoaoh, Pharoah, let my people go, was sung fervently as the sun glared on the backs of cotton-picking slaves. Jordan or River Jordan is often referred to in Negro Spirituals. It is the code term for the body of water that slaves crossed to freedom; the Ohio River separated the North from the South. These are only a few terms to look for when decoding Negro spirituals (Thomas).
A well- known spiritual that has found its way into the hymn books of America's religious institution is titled Wade in the Water. This song was created by the slaves of the south. It was used as a very important tool to assist Harriet Tubman. Tubman was a conductor of the Underground Railroad. Born into slavery, she was able to escape her life of bondage and successfully escorted over 300 slaves to freedom during a ten-year span (Public Broadcasting System). The lyrics of this sacred song alerted runaways that slave catchers were nearby, and advised the use of waterways to avoid being detected by scent-sniffing dogs. It also warned the runaway of the freezing temperature of the Ohio River (Songs).
Slave owners kept their slave ignorant of geographic routes to limit escapes. But slaves knew the North states were where freedom lies. Abolitionist taught slaves to escape North by using the North Star as a navigation aid. It is the star that the earth axis points toward in the Northern sky. Slaves were able to locate Polaris by locating a constellation of stars that was in the shape of a big dipper. The North Star was very significant in the lives of slaves. Slave children were taught to locate Polaris as soon as they reach the age of understanding. The Drinking Gourd is a Negro Spiritual that functioned as Map song. Slaves from the states of Alabama and Mississippi used this song to pass along an escape route from plantation to plantation (pathway).
The Drinking Gourd is attributed to an old man with a wooden leg called Peg Leg Joe. An abolitionist who spent winters in the south, Peg Leg Joe would visit plantations under the premise of looking for work (Owen Sound). The song's first verse advised slaves that early spring was a good time of the year to escape. The second verse instructed runaways to keep close to the river bank and to follow a trail of clues, left on dead trees, that were marked with a left foot and a right circle. In the third verse, slaves were instructed to continue North until the river ends between two hills. From there, they were to travel along the Tennessee River. Slaves were told that the Tennessee River joined the Ohio River in the last verse. Once they crossed this river, a guide would be waiting to transport them to freedom (Myths and Codes).
Harriet Tubman favorite Negro spiritual was called Swing Low, Sweet Chariot. She sung this song while on her death bed. Slave owners listening to the lyrics of this spiritual would assume that the song was metaphoric of the bible story in which a chariot swung from heaven to earth. Prophet Elijah was lifted up and carried to heaven. In contrary, slaves were not singing about a celestial chariot, but the freedom train that carried them home! Abolitionist, referred to as angels, would sometimes use wagons to transport runaways to freedom.
Tubman was also referred to as Sweet Chariot. Once called Moses by her people, her code name was discovered and changed to Sweet Chariot. I t is said that the slaves were welcoming death with this song. According to Richard Sanders, Astronomy can be used in understanding the verses of this song. The Big Dipper swings low everyday, its chariot goes around the North Star every 24 hours. In the springtime, shortly after sundown, the chariot is low on the horizon and continues to swing up during the first part of the night (Sanders).
Decades before the Civil War, enslaved Africans created a poetry of work songs and field hollers known today as spirituals; a mixture of the Negro American experience and the African culture. During the late 18th century many slaves converted to Christianity, but reshaped the religion by blending it with their African traditions. Spirituals dealt with deliverance, survival, and sorrow. The secret meaning of Negro Spirituals were known only to the slaves who created them. It was not until the after the civil war that Spirituals became socially significant. The Fisk Jubilee Singers helped to universalized Spirituals.
The triumphs and lows in which spirituals were sung is reflected through the lyrics of a Negro spiritual; Sometimes I'm up, sometimes I'm down. The religious themes of spirituals have mislead many into believing that slaves embraced Christianity wholeheartedly, instead it was the resemblance of the Hebrew slaves life to the American slave life that intrigued the slave. Spirituals mislead White America of the slave era to believe that slaves were the happiest when they sang. Frederick Douglass refuted this notion in his autobiography.
"I have often been utterly astonished, since I came to the North, to find persons who could speak of the singing, among slaves, of evidence of their contentment and happiness. It is impossible to conceive of a greater mistake. 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."
Spirituals helped slaves endure their hardships. It is easier to read the lyrics of these songs to understand the feelings and thoughts of the American slave than it is by reading any history book. The true history of the American slave is preserved through Negro spirituals.