“The so-called “slave songs” of the United States are best understood when they are considered as expressions of individual Negroes which can be dated and assigned to a geographical locale. They are, in brief, historical documents”. – Miles Mark Fisher, Negro Slave Songs in the United States
“Go down Moses
Way down in Egypt’s land
To let my people go!”
During slavery in the United States, there were systematic efforts to strip the identity of the captive. When the so-called African was taken from the West coast of Africa, it was not a simple transition of country, to ship, to land, but he had to undergo an entire initiation process before stepping foot on the plantations of America. His name, being the most important, was taken from him, followed by his way of life which was stripped from him, and his history book taken from him. In turn he was given the ways of his slave masters, and his new name reflected the name of their gods. In short, he was made into a Negro.
Being unlawful for blacks to read and to write, the Negro Spiritual becomes an intriguing study of its own. How did a people who were not allowed to read the bible sing songs with such deep spiritual concepts?
It is not difficult to see that the words of the earliest known Negro spirituals are taken directly from biblical scripture, are very much poetic, and can be considered in the truest form the literal Spoken Word. The passion in which these songs were sung most certainly adds to the rhythm, texture, melody, tempo, variation, and emotional depth of words. So much so that we must understand that the power in which these songs were sung did not just come from a people who made stuff up along the cotton filled aisles of Mississippi and Alabama. These songs were sung with such power because of a people who lived them.
“Wade in the Water
Wade in the Water children
Wade in the Water
See that band all dressed in white….
The leader looks like that Israelite…
See the band all dressed in red…
Looks like the band that Moses led.”
If one was to closely examine the Physical Appearance of the ancient Israelites and Egyptians, one will see that they were a dark skinned people; this means that Moses, Abraham, The Prophets and even the Messiah, would have looked like your typical Negro had they walked the earth today. “Wade in the Water”, is a very revealing song, as it compares the captivity of the Israelites to the Captivity of the African who has been brought to a new Egypt, only this time in ships.
But the Negro Spiritual did more than reveal factual information that talked about the Old and New Testament; it was also a way of communication for the slaves who could not otherwise communicate under normal circumstances. “Wade in the Water” was one of those songs that gave hint to the runaway to go into the water when he is being chased. He goes into the water because the dogs will lose track of his scent. Therefore, if he is being hunted down he is being told to “Wade in the Water”.
The same is true for “Swing Low Sweet Chariot”, which was also a song of dual meaning:
“I looked over Jordan,
And what did I see,
Comin for to carry me home
A band of angels comin after me
Coming for to carry me home
Swing low, sweet chariot,
Comin forth to carry me home;
Swing low, sweet chariot,
Comin forth to carry me home“
“Swing Low Sweet Chariot” is a very powerful song. Contrary to popular belief, it is not a song about dying and going to heaven, but this song could only be sung by people who had great biblical understanding. The bible speaks heavily concerning chariots and clouds or what we may refer to today as UFOs or Unidentified Flying Objects. In brief, this song echoes the lyric of Revelations which speaks about the messiah coming down in a chariot (or cloud) with his band of angels to lead the righteous to the Promised Land. (Swing low, sweet chariot, coming forth to carry me home). The bible also speaks of the New Jerusalem coming down like a bride adorned for her husband (“Looked over Jordan”) What’s over Jordan? Israel is over Jordan. Israel is in Africa. Home is over Jordan.
But “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot” also had another meaning. Not only was it a biblical song, but it is a song about The Underground Railroad. Swing low, Sweet Chariot refers to Ripley, a “Station” of the Underground Railroad where fugitive slaves were welcomed. This town was on a hill by the Ohio River, which is not easy to cross. So, to teach this place, fugitives had to wait for help coming from the hill. “Swing low, sweet chariot.”
“Halleluyah I’m a travelin
Halleluyah ain’t it fine?
Halleluyah I’m a travelin
down freedom’s main line”
– 1961 Freedom Song
Negro Spirituals did not stop at slavery, but for every movement of African American people, each was followed by a certain cultural theme. The times did not change without a change in tune, in clothing, in hair style, and in thought. From the plantations of chattel slavery, Jim Crow and Civil Rights, to Black Power and Revolution, every movement we have been or are a part of, has had its own unique sound that taught you something about the state of Black people during that time, about the movement and even how to move. Our music is therefore, in many ways, an extension of The Negro Spiritual.