When there is a limited record of documented history, indigenous songs are compelling evidence of the history of a people. The songs sung by slaves were expressions of sorrow in their harsh living conditions and faith that a better life was promised in heaven. In addition, the same songs were used in code to communicate among slaves that escape was near at hand. The double meaning of the spirituals has inspired many to marvel at the ingenuity of the communication methods.
Lyrics to Steal Away
Steal away, steal away, steal away to Jesus!
Steal away, steal away home, I ain't got long to stay here!
Swing Low, Sweet Chariot was a favorite of Harriet Tubman, called Moses for her deliverance of so many slaves to freedom. O Canaan was used to refer to the trip to Canada and freedom. One Last River and Roll Jordan Roll are references to the Ohio River as the border between free and slave states. Follow the Drinking Gourd was an instruction to use the North Star as a navigational tool. Wade in the Water was a warning given by fellow slaves to help escaping slaves elude capture by slave catchers with packs of dogs.
In his narrative of his life, escaped slave and passionate anti-slavery orator Frederick Douglass writes: "They would sing words which to many would seem unmeaning jargon, but which nevertheless, were full of meaning to themselves. I have sometimes thought that the mere hearing of those songs would do more to impress some minds with the horrible character of slavery than the reading of whole volumes of philosophy. I did not, when a slave, understand the deep meaning of those songs. They told a tale of woe which was then altogether beyond my feeble comprehension; they were tones loud, long, and deep; they breathed the prayer and complaint of souls boiling over with the bitterest anguish. 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."
Listen to the Kentucky State University Quartet sing:
Kentucky's state song, My Old Kentucky Home contains lyrics written to tell the emotions of a slave who had been sold away. Many of Stephen Foster's "plantation" songs were written to be performed by white minstrel singers and were not inspired by the music of slaves.
Listen to the songs from the documentary. How do spirituals make you feel? Respond through movement that is symbolic of escaping secretly or symbolic of how the music makes you feel. Create a song or a poem to express how they would feel if they were enslaved, seeking freedom, or had achieved freedom.
Perform spirituals that evoke feelings such as triumph, freedom, resolve, despair, loss, etc. (e.g., Oh Freedom, Swing Low, Sweet Chariot, Wade in the Water, etc).
Research songs and poems from other time periods and cultures that express human desires such as freedom from oppression.
Analyze the effect of time, place, and belief system on the interpretation of My Old Kentucky Home, or Steal Away. How can music be used to convey a mood that may not be an accurate portrayal of the subject of the song? How can music be "coded"?
Are songs popular with young people today "coded" in any way?
Connections to Kentucky's Core Content for Assessment for Music