Like all traditional or folk songs, the words often change from place to place to suit the specific needs of the people who sing it. But one thing constant with the coded slave songs is the repetition of the important part.
Wade in the Water, wade in the water children.
Wade in the Water. God's gonna trouble the water.
This was telling the slaves to stay in or near the water so that the slave catcher’s dogs can’t track them.
Follow the Drinking Gourd is a famous coded slave spiritual telling the slaves to follow Polaris to which the Big Dipper points, to go North to freedom.
Swing Low, Sweet Chariot, Go Down Moses, Steal Away, are just a few of the other songs that were known to have codes to help escaping slaves. Pathways to Freedom:
But the most fascinating thing I found was a collection of songs recorded between 1935 and 1939 in the south by John and Ruby Lomax, digitized by and found at the Library of Congress. There are many spirituals, but there are hundreds of songs about all kinds of other topics as well. Take a listen to a few of them (they're short). It’s kind of eerie.
In two weeks I present the history of Take Me Out to the Ball Game which celebrates its 100th anniversary this year! This recording is on cylinder from