Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Songs of the Underground Railroad

Recently I volunteered to present the history of some of the songs we’re singing in our homeschool chorus this year. Happily, our theme is Songs of American History. Because Wade in the Water is one of the songs that we’re singing, I have been spending some time over the last few days exploring the coded meaning in the spirituals that the slaves sang as part of the Underground Railroad.

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: Maryland & the Underground Railroad site has a lot of great information and some primary source documents. National Geographic has a decent interactive website, as does PBS as part of In the Time of the Lincolns with plenty of primary source documents about abolition and the Underground Railroad.

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 Edison’s National Phonograph Company in the year it was written, 1908! Cool beans!

1 comment:

Stephen Bourque said...

The recordings at the Library of Congress are quite compelling. You're right about them being eerie, too. There is something a little ghostly and mysterious about them.