Negro spirituals are rich in Christian imagery and language. They are also called slave, plantation or work songs and have been around since the first Africans were captured and brought to America. The topics addressed by the hymns had intense significance to the slaves of the time.
The Africans provided cheap labor on the cotton and cane fields. Many were treated very badly. Families would be broken up and sold at slave auctions as if they were livestock. Singing helped sustain their spirits and souls through the drudgery of the arduous work. Some of the slaves made repeated efforts to escape.
The African had a strong sense of community and retained this on the plantations. Age-old traditions and cultures were passed on down through the generations by the telling of stories and singing of songs. This oral tradition was very rich and led to African folk music finding its way into western society.
Singing their hymns of hardship and strife helped the slaves get through their difficult days. It was a form of praying for freedom and deliverance. However, the hymns were more than simple lyrics set to music. Many musicologists believe that countless songs had special meaning for the slaves. Code words within the hymns passed on information about the road to freedom or Underground Railroad. Others detailed methods of escape.
By being so familiar with the songs, even subtle differences in calls, responses and drumming rhythms meant something to the slaves. Many were illiterate and their musical traditions enabled them to communicate with each other without the overseer's being aware of it. While the slaves were singing, the overseer knew where they were so singing was allowed and even encouraged.
'Follow The Drinking Gourd' is one song that was supposed to help the escapees find their way north to freedom. For many, crossing the Ohio River brought their freedom. In songs, the Ohio became the River Jordan. The drinking gourd is a reference to the Big Dipper. This would help them to find north. A line in the song says 'dead trees will show us the way'. Moss grew only on the north side of dead trees and was another guide in finding their way northwards. The lyrics of 'Wade in the Water' refer to walking for some distance in rivers and streams to make it harder for bloodhounds to follow their trail.
Harriet Tubman was a 'conductor', someone who helped escapees find their way to freedom. She assisted over three hundred slaves in their quest for liberty. When she met with a group and 'Steal Away' was sung, those who wanted to travel with her knew to 'steal away' and say goodbye to their families. 'Go Down Moses' is another song packed with symbolism.
African slaves had Christianity forced on them but soon adopted the forms of worship and a deep faith. Plantation slaves worked solidly from daybreak to nightfall. The days were very hot. Although Negro spirituals might have relayed information from time to time, they also helped the slaves to cope with the physical, emotional and mental hardships that they were going through. While the Civil War may have ended slavery, prejudice and persecution persisted for many more years.
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