Go Down, Moshe: Decoding Negro Spirituals

Editor’s note: Below, LABA fellow Marques Hollie discusses his project Go Down, Moshe, which explores the Passover story in light of American slavery. Hollie uses the term “enslaved people.” He explains: “the term ‘slaves’ allows others to distance themselves from the humanity and personhood each and every one of these people possessed.”

The Hebrew Bible has had a profound effect on American culture, creating some fascinating places of cultural overlap. My project for LABA involves exploring the Exodus from Egypt using the musical tradition of Negro spirituals and the narratives of the formerly enslaved.

Negro spirituals, in their simplest definition, are “a religious song of a kind associated with black Christians of the southern US, and thought to derive from the combination of European hymns and African musical elements by black slaves” (thank you, Dictionary.com).

While this definition is not wholly inaccurate, if we accept it at face value, we lose deeper insight into this musical tradition.

Many of the spirituals we know today originated from enslaved blacks. Part of that enslavement meant adopting the religious practices of slaveholders, primarily Christianity. As a result of this forced religious assimilation, many of these songs are laced with Biblical and Christian imagery.

That said, much of that imagery has meaning beneath what is suggested on the surface. For example, slaveholders frequently did not allow slaves to gather in groups to speak to one another. Thus spirituals helped enslaved people communicate important messages while coping with the hardships of human bondage.

Let’s begin with “Go Down Moses,” a spiritual many of us know because we sing it at our Passover seder tables:

Go down, Moses
Way down in Egypt land
Tell ole Pharoah
To let my people go!

Harriet Tubman, one of the most well-known conductors on the Underground Railroad (a network of safe houses and secret routes used by enslaved people to escape to free states and Canada), was called the “Moses of her people.” Harriet Tubman herself escaped the Poplar Neck Plantation in 1849, and over the course of ten years, returned to Maryland nineteen times to free others (including her own parents). As noted in her biography, Scenes in the Life of Harriet Tubman, she used this spiritual to communicate two things when leading groups north: that she had returned with food and other provisions; and that it wasn’t safe for the group to approach due to other dangers (namely bounty hunters).

Deep River” is another spiritual with both coded messages and associations with the Hebrew Bible. I’ve been singing “Deep River” for decades; it may be the first spiritual I ever learned:

Deep river,
My home is over Jordan.
Deep river Lord,
I wanna cross over into campground

The text is based on the third chapter in the book of Joshua. After Moses’s death, Joshua must lead the Israelites across the Jordan River to the promised land. For an enslaved person, fugitive or otherwise, the Jordan River mentioned in the book of Joshua was the Ohio River. The Ohio River and the Mason-Dixon line were the historical border between free states and slave states, so if you were able to successfully cross the Ohio River, you were free!

Well, you were free until the passage of the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, which punished officials with heavy fines, regardless of state, for not arresting and reporting runaway slaves. After this act was passed, the only truly “free” place was Canada.

As much as these songs were used to communicate both hope and messages for escaped slaves, they were also used to communicate important messages on plantations. As enslaved people were not permitted to gather and socialize, they had to develop ways to communicate — and one way to do that was singing.

The night of her escape from the Poplar Neck Plantation, Harriet Tubman bade farewell to her friends and family members by singing “I’ll Meet you in the Morning.” In it, the singer of the song apologizes for leaving, but promises to meet the listener in the morning, on the other side of the “Jordan” — or Ohio River, safe in the “promised land” — the free states or Canada:

I’ll meet you in the morning,
I’m bound for the promised land.
On the other side of Jordan,
Bound for the promised land.