Slave Spirituals: History and Activism

Katie Wells

Katie Wells (class of 2014) hails from Flat Rock in the mountains of Western North Carolina.  During her first year at Davidson, she discovered a passion for studying Chinese culture.  In pursuit of this interest, Katie spent eight weeks this summer immersed in the language at Middlebury College Chinese Language School in Vermont.  She hopes to major in East Asian Studies or Anthropology.  Katie’s essay was written for Professor Nancy Fairley’s Anthropology 205: Ethnic Relations class.

The slave trade played a significant role in America’s history; from creating and sustaining a capitalist nation to building the White House, our nation was founded on slavery. The harshness with which slaves were treated was far beyond contemporary comprehension. With the slave trade, however, came the abolitionist movement and the call to free slaves who had been so unjustly forced into servitude. From their beginnings on slave ships crossing the Middle Passage to their lives on plantations and farms, slaves endured horrors to serve white interests. Slaves were treated as property, given no human rights, and sold and purchased according to the whims of their masters. Slaves had almost no control over their daily lives. To survive the atrocities inflicted upon them, many slaves developed musical practices in the form of the spiritual to escape both the mental anguish and physical trauma of their daily lives.

Slaves knew that it was their intrinsic right to be free and that they would have to win their own freedom; no one was going to simply grant it to them. Their captors did not consider persons of color as part of the human race; therefore, it became the responsibility of enslaved peoples to reclaim their humanity. Their appeals to freedom took the forms of riots, rebellions, escapes, and even suicides, since death wasslavespiritual31-150x150 Slave Spirituals: History and Activism considered an escape from the horrors of slave life.1 The very idea that death was preferable to slave life offers a powerful perspective on the realities of slave life.

Beyond violence, slaves used the scant resources they possessed to make their pleas for freedom heard. They collaborated to design and develop their own churches, known as “praise houses,” places to gather, worship, sing, and dance, in part drawing upon practices anchored in West Africa.2 As the praise houses took root, slaves used the gathering space as an outlet to continue practicing native African religious and musical traditions. Quickly, however, slaveholders shut down these praise houses, insisting that slaves should abide by Christian beliefs and discard their African roots.3

The Birth of Slave Spirituals: Form and Function 

Slaves drew upon the African tradition of sung spirituals to cope with the trauma of slavery. Newly-fashioned slave spirituals enabled enslaved African-Americans to maintain a trace connection to African roots. Spirituals not only punctuated the monotonous rhythm of work, but also enabled the enslaved to communicate and to share information with each other.4 In Africa, spirituals were sung to welcome a child into the world, to send a person on into the next, and to punctuate the moments in between.5 Jones goes so far to remind us that “[s]pirituals reflect a central core of African American culture, upon whose foundations almost all other aspects of psychological and social history have been built.6 The African spiritual proved to be a versatile form upon which such a foundation could be built.

In teaching the slaves Christian religious beliefs, slaveholders ironically “omitted the concepts of human brotherhood and equality” and manipulated certain Biblical teachings to convince slaves that God had enslaved them for a reason.7 Drawing on African religious roots, many slaves knew that their slaveholders’ view of religion was untrue. Knowing in their hearts that God wanted no one enslaved, they searched The Bible for evidence of the kind and loving God to which they were accustomed. Slaves often found hope in the Old Testament stories of a God who, among other deeds, “delivered the children of Israel out of bondage;” the slaves were sure their God would do the same for them.8 Using stories that portrayed an image of the God they were familiar with, slaves crafted new spirituals using traditional African musical forms, and exclaiming their desire to be free and to live in heaven with their God.9 Slaves were permitted to sing these newly-fashioned spirituals in the fields as long as they songs were not in opposition to their masters’ beliefs. These field songs began as “quiet” songs sung be one or a small group of slaves.10 With time, field songs began to contain messages, enabling slaves to pass information from row to row, or even from one plantation to another. Coded spirituals were used not only as a way to pass covert messages undetected by the slave owners, but also facilitated the escape of slaves along the Underground Railroad. Harriet Tubman and “Peg Leg Joe,” two of the most notable of its “conductors,” relied on coded spirituals to encourage and direct slaves to escape to the North.11

Go Down, Moses was said to be one of the spirituals Tubman used to announce that she would be leaving soon for the North.12 Not only did she use spirituals to announce her arrival on a certain plantation or farm, but also to instruct others about how to proceed with their northern journeys. So successful was Tubman in using this method that she was able to return to the South nineteen times to aid over three hundred slaves in their escape along the Underground Railroad, and never did she lose a slave. She was so skilled at enabling escape that the reward for her capture reached $40,000.13 Much like Harriet Tubman, “Peg Leg Joe” also moved from plantation to plantation, teaching slaves spirituals that would assist them in their escape. Unlike Tubman however, Joe did not lead the slaves North, but rather taught them the spiritual Follow the Drinking Gourd, which contained a number of coded messages.14

As communal discourse, spirituals fostered identity, catalyzed emotional change, and–perhaps most interestingly–offered a political mechanism for transgressive speech.

While spirituals clearly hold African roots, they are an art form indigenous to the Americas. Having been reconceived and performed in the United States, they were one of the first indigenous musical forms in America, second only to Native American music.15 As slaves developed original spirituals to depict their lives, certain characteristic styles emerged. The use of the African five-tone (pentatonic) scale was derived from native African spiritual music. Spirituals make use of call-and-response phrases to allow everyone a role in the performance.16 Stylized moans and cries were interjected into the music whenever the performer(s) felt that they were needed. The use of complex and simultaneous rhythms and ever-revised lyrics were also typical characteristics.17 Because spirituals originated in an oral tradition, spirituals were typically left unrecorded in writing, which had the ironic advantage of sponsoring constantly-evolving lyrical and musical features. While some spirituals may have been altered due to faulty memory, other revisions were quite purposeful: “Facilities with speech, cleverness with words, verbal wit, and dramatic oratory were–and remain–highly-admired qualities within the African American community”18 Such a spirit for revision also enhanced the flexibility needed to update coded information.  The genre’s form nicely activates its function.

Framing, Identity Formation, and Mobilization of Resources

By deploying spirituals for covert communication, slaves were yet more able to unite under a common cause. Throughout their history, blacks used spirituals in their daily lives. Once they reached the United States, slaves had to find a way to transcend their African cultural differences and unite as one people. Spirituals became a collaborative and cohesive medium.19 In the collective, singing spirituals was a way to share grief and to bolster one another through times of stress and sorrow.

As communal discourse, spirituals fostered identity, catalyzed emotional change, and–perhaps most interestingly–offered a political mechanism for transgressive speech. By encoding their spirituals with complex, layered, and covert meanings, the slaves, in effect, created their own pidgin. The spirituals were sung in English, but to the masters’ ears, they might as well have been sung in the slaves’ native African tongues.20 With the spirituals’ religious connotations and seemingly obvious praise of God, the master or overseer might well be proud that his slaves were singing Christian praise and encourage them to sing out, ironically supporting their rebellion.21

While the codes (most often scriptural references given new meanings) were most often focused on details for escape, at times they  gestured toward mental freedom and religious transformation. For instance, Steal Away offered hope to those slaves who could not physically escape, but could only “steal away” to their Lord.22 But Steal Away did not merely function as mentalistic relief; the singing of the song meant that a secret meeting would be held that night to discuss the possibilities of escape, or to signal that Underground Railroad guides would soon arrive. In this way, not only were lyrics codified, but also the very performance of a spiritual held significance. Coded spirituals, then, operated as a mobilization resource as well as an information archive. In a word, the spirituals functioned as “social action music.”23

Continued Influence

Slave spirituals not only played a crucial role in facilitating relief and escape for thousands of slaves, but they also left a vital record of the conditions of slave life before manumission. This record, however, was suppressed for many years. Many freed slaves did not want slavespiritual31-150x150 Slave Spirituals: History and Activismto talk about their lives under slavery, let alone continue to perform their daily troubles in song. The Fisk Jubilee Singers changed this viewpoint, however, when they began performing around the country in the 1870s to raise funds for their school.24 Founded in 1866 as one of the first black colleges in the United States, Fisk University was in serious financial trouble by 1871. George L. White, a Music professor and Treasurer of the school, organized a nine-member choral ensemble for a fund-raising tour.  The Jubilee Singers serenaded audiences with slave spirituals, and despite a rough start, soon began to bring in large crowds and substantial donations.25 The Singers were instrumental in making it acceptable to perform slave spirituals, and helped to widen reception as a pleasurable experience. They opened the door for many other artists to perform the spiritual and to crystallize the genre as an indigenous style.

After emancipation, and during the Jim Crow era, black singers found it extremely difficult to initiate viable careers, no matter how talented they were. To better cope with continued prejudice, several singers (Roland Hayes and Marian Anderson among them) moved to Europe to establish themselves in a countries with fewer racial biases, and once they had established their careers there, return to the United States.  Hayes graduated from Fisk determined to be “the first professionally successful Black singer of classical music”26 In 1920, after four unsuccessful years of touring the United States, Hayes set out for a European tour, hoping for a better reception. He had remarkable success in Europe, and upon his return to the States was welcomed. Once established in American musical circles, he began to incorporate slave spirituals into his programs. His sensitive interpretations won him wide acclaim.

His book of slave spirituals entitled My Songs, published in 1948, helped catalyze the career of Marian Anderson who, like Hayes, traveled to Europe to begin her career, later to return to America as an established concert artist. Anderson felt a strong connection to her ancestors and incorporated spirituals into nearly every concert program, but unlike Hayes, sang the spirituals in dialect. In 1939, she gave a free outdoor concert at the Lincoln Memorial, arranged by Secretary of the Interior Harold Ickes and attended by seventy-five thousand people.

Slave spirituals played an important role as the foundations for two of America’s indigenous musical styles–blues and jazz.27 Similar to spirituals, blues deals with everyday life and work and the hardships that accompany them. Over the years, many jazz songs have been loosely based on or directly linked to slave spirituals. Some of the more direct jazz links include Duke Ellington’s Come Sunday and John Coltrane’s Spiritual.  Wynton Marsalas, a jazz trumpeter, has also produced a jazz oratorio, Blood and Fields, which draws on the traditional yoking of the ideal of freedom with song.28 The sheer volume of music anchored in the slave spiritual is breathtaking.


W.E.B. DuBois once said, “Spirituals were the slaves’ one articulate message to the world”29 Initiated as a way for slaves to unite as one people in the midst of suffering, they stand as a powerful reminder of how scant resources can be put to generous effect. Deployed in both personal and political fashion, spirituals allow us to see how transgressive tactics can effectively be woven into the everyday in the shape of ethical practice.  To this day, spirituals are used to encourage, to offer hope, and lend support. “Go tell it on the mountain” sounds and resounds as testament to aesthetics put to the service of moral life.


Appendix A

Go Down, Moses

When Israel was in Egypt land,

Let my people go;

Oppressed so hard they could not stand,

Let me people go

“Thus saith the Lord,” bold Moses said,

Let my people go;

If not, I’ll smite your first-born dead,

Let my people go.

Go down, Moses,

Way down to Egypt land.

Tell ole Pharaoh,

Let my people go!30


Appendix B

Follow the Drinking Gourd

When the sun comes up and first quail calls, follow the drinking gourd.

For the old man is a-waiting to carry you to freedom,

If you follow the drinking gourd.

The riverbank makes a very good road.

The dead trees show you the way,

Left foot, peg foot, travelling on

Follow the drinking gourd.

The river ends between two hills

Follow the drinking gourd.

There’s another river on the other side,

Follow the drinking gourd

Where the great big river meets the little river,

Follow the drinking gourd.

For the old man is a-waiting to carry you to freedom,

If you follow the drinking gourd.31


Appendix C

Steal Away

Steal away, steal away,

Steal away to Jesus;

Steal away, steal away home,

I ain’t got long to stay here.


My Lord, he calls me;

He calls me by the thunder;

The trumpet sounds within-a my soul,

I ain’t got long to stay here.


Green trees a-bending,

Poor sinner stands a-trembling.


Tombstones are bursting,

Poor sinner stands a-trembling;


My Lord, he calls me,

He calls me by the lightning;32



Curtis, Marvin Vernell. “The Lyric of the African-American Spiritual: The Meaning Behind the Words.” The Choral Journal 37 (no. 1), 15-19.

Dixon, Christa K. Negro Spirituals: From the Bible to Folk Song, Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1976.

Fisk University. “Fisk Jubilee Singers.” http://www.fiskjubileesingers.org/ourhistory.html (accessed November 12, 2010).

Jones, Arthur C. Wade in the Water: The Wisdom of the Spirituals. New York: Orbis Books, 1993.

Lovell, John, Jr. Black Song: The Forge and the Flame. New York: Paragon House, 1972.

Mimm, Amy. “Coded Slave Songs: How They Were Essential to the Underground Railroad.” http://factzoid.com/coded-slave-songs-how-they-were-essential-to-the-underground-railborad/ (accessed October 30, 2010).

Newman, Richard. “Spirituals, African American.” In Africana: The Encyclopedia of African and African American Experience. vol. 5. Edited by Kwame Anthony Appiah and Henry Louis Gates, Jr. New York: Oxford University Press, 2005, 53-57.

Painter, Nell Irvin. Creating Black Americans: African-American History and Its Meanings 1619 to the Present. New York: Oxford University Press, 2007.

Ponomarenko, John. “Coded Slaves Songs.” The Soul Review. http://www.localdial.com/users/jsyedu133/Soulreview/Understandingpages/coded.htm. (accessed October 30, 2010). 

Spirituals Project at the University of Denver. “Sweet Chariot: The Story of the Spirituals.” http://ctl.du.edu/spirituals/. (accessed November 12, 2010).

Stephens, Judith L. “Art, Activism and Uncompromising Attitude in Georgia Douglas Johnson’s Lynching Plays.” African American Review 39 (no. 1/2), 87-102.

  1. This is recounted in Arthur C. Jones, Wade in the Water: The Wisdom of the Spirituals, (New York: Orbis Books, 1993): 40, and Judith L. Stephens, “Art Activism and Uncompromising Attitude in Georgia Douglas Johnson’s Lynching Plays,” African American Review 39 (no. 1/2): 92. []
  2. Amy Mimm, “Coded Slave Songs: How They Were Essential to the Underground Railroad” http://factoidz.com/coded-slave-songs-how-they-were-essential-to-the-underground-railroad/ (accessed October 30, 2010). []
  3. Marvin Vernell Curtis, “The Lyric of the African-American Spiritual: The Meaning Behind the Words,” The Choral Journal 37, no. 1 (1996): 15. []
  4. Richard Newman, “Spirituals, African American,” in Africana: The Encyclopedia of the African and African American Experience, vol. 5, eds. Kwame Anthony Appiah and Henry Louis Gates, Jr. (New York: Oxford University Press, 2005): 54. []
  5. Jones, Wade, 40. []
  6. Jones, Wade, xiv. []
  7. Curtis, “The Lyric,” 15. []
  8. Curtis, “The Lyric,” 16. []
  9. Curtis, “The Lyric,” 15. []
  10. Mimm, “Coded Slave Songs”. []
  11. John Ponomarenko, “Coded Slave Songs,” The Soul Review http://www.localdial.com/users/jsyedu133/Soulreview/Understandingpages/coded.htm. (accessed October 30, 2010. []
  12. see Appendix A. []
  13. Mimm, “Coded.” []
  14. see Appendix B. []
  15. Newman, “Spirituals,” 53. []
  16. Nell Irvin Painter, Creating Black Americans: African-American History and Its Meanings, 1619 to the Present, (New York: Oxford University Press, 2007), 56. []
  17. Painter, Creating, 56. []
  18. Newman, “Spirituals,” 54. []
  19. Newman, “Spirituals,” 53. []
  20. For a description of how covert coded messages have been deployed at other historical moments, see Christa K. Dixon, Negro Spirituals: From the Bible to Folk Song, (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1976), 81. []
  21. Dixon, Negro Spirituals, 81. []
  22. see Appendix C. []
  23. Jones, Wade, xiv. []
  24. Newman, “Spirituals,” 57. []
  25. Fisk University, “Fisk Jubilee Singers” http://www.fiskjubileesingers.org/our history.html (accessed November 12, 2010. []
  26. Spirituals Project at the University of Denver, “Sweet Chariot: The Story of the Spirituals” http://ctl.du.edu/spirituals (accessed November 12, 2010. []
  27. Newman, “Spirituals,” 54. []
  28. Spirituals Project, “The Blues. []
  29. quoted in Newman, “Spirituals,” 57. []
  30. Jones, Wade, 44. []
  31. Ponomaranko, “Coded Slave Songs”. []
  32. Dixon, Negro Spirituals, 81. []