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There is considerable evidence that spirituals were used as secret codes of communication. In fact Frederick Douglass describes the use of the spirituals as ways of communication for plans of escape, expressing their dissatisfaction with their present condition and for revolt and protest.

Songs listed below are some of the more easily recognizable ones:

Go Down Moses

Steal Away

I Couldn't hear nobody pray

Keep a-inching along

"(like a poor inch worm; Jesus will come by and by....

We must watch as well as pray; Jesus will come by and by.)"

Oh, freedom!

In the morning when I rise

Down by the riverside (gonna lay down my burden)

Over my head

How do you Feel? (when you come out the wilderness)

Bye and bye (I'm going to lay down this heavy load)

Follow the drinkin' gourd!

(this song was used as map)

This song directed runaway slaves to keep traveling in the direction of the Big Dipper.

There undoubtedly were some songs which served the slaves in their efforts to escape. "Follow the Drinking Gourd" is thought to have been a kind of oral map leading out of slave territory. The "drinking gourd" presumably was the Big Dipper, by which one readily locates the North Star:

Follow the drinkin' gourd!

"When the sun comes back and the first quail calls,

Follow the drinking gourd.

For the old man is waiting for to carry you to freedom

If you follow the drinkin' gourd.

The river bank will make a very good road,

The dead trees show you the way.

Left foot, peg foot, traveling on,

Follow the drinkin' gourd."

Let Us Break Bread Together

Let us break bread (drink wine, praise God) together on our knees

When I fall on my knees, with my face to the rising sun,

Oh, Lord, have mercy on me!

The words, "with my face to the rising sun," is hardly related to holy communion, which is not a morning ritual or require one to face to the east. It is also not essential to be on ones knees to receive communion.

It is argued that it was used as a signal song calling enslaved Africans to secret meetings.

Wade in de Water

Many Spirituals functioned in two ways other than religious _expression.

"Michael row the boat ashore"

This Spiritual served as a work song as well as a social song. Such songs soon lost their religious status. Today this spiritual, "Michael row the board ashore," remains in the secular category of collected African American songs.

Michael row the boat ashore


Michael row the boat ashore


Sister help to trim the sail


Sister help to trim the sail


(Michael here refers to the Archangel Michael)


Slaves were forbidden to beat drums and blow horns, since these were means of communication, which might be used to help runaways. All such activities were dangerous, too, as a means of concerting uprisings-another reason for the existence of these laws. Not all of them were enforced at all times with equal rigor.


Masking in Spirituals:

He got his eye on you


He got he' eye on you, he got he' eye on you

my God sittin' in de Kingdom

He' got he eye on you


"When I git to heaven gwine sing and shout

nobody dere gwine turn me out"

My God sittin' in de kingdom

He got he eye on you


"mind my brother how you walk on the cross

Yo' foot might slip and yo' soul git loss"

Use of Old Testament Biblical Heroic characters:




Little David



Spirituals with these triumphal characters:

Didn't my Lord deliver Daniel

Joshua Fit the Battle of Jericho

Little David play on your harp

Ezekiel saw the wheel

Witness - Samson

Ride on, King Jesus: Interpretation: Celebrating the triumphal ride of Jesus encourages the enslaved African to say : Because Jesus' Ride is one of victory they are encourage that, "No man can hinder me" (no man can hinder the slave who desires to escape to freedom) because Jesus is his savior.

Oh, Peter, go ring -a dem bells

Oh, Peter, go ring-a dem bells,

Peter, go ring-a dem bells

I heard from heaven today!

An I couldn't hear nobody pray

"An I couldn't hear nobody pray" - The sense of being all alone and the feeling that they were receiving no help from anyone in the help to escape to freedom.

"Way down yonder by myself" Way down in slavery - perhaps having lost family and friends etc.

All of the ad lib. Sections - They should be taken much slower than the regular tempo and given much _expression. Each one being made into great _expression or bit of exaggeration. But not to the ridiculous. But after the ad lib. It immediately goes back to the upbeat tempo.

I think the verse in the last section is a dead give-away:

Chilly waters!

In de Jerdon!

Crossin' over!

Into Canaan!

Everything here speaks of crossing over from slavery into freedom perhaps in the North (Canaan).


Troubles Over

In de Kingdom!

With my Jesus!

The freedom to live a better life and to serve God as they want.

"Way down yonder by myself (fermata). At the beginning the phrase is in tempo and gradually slows down to a hold at the fermata being very expressive.

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