Symbolism in African American Folk Music

How was symbolism used in Black Folk Music?

During the time of slavery, it was common and known for black people to sing while they were forced to work day after day. Their captors became accustomed to his slaves singing and would mostly allow it because they believed the singing made them happier and work faster. What they did not know was that while they were singing, some of their lines held symbolism within the lyrics, meaning the slaves were communicating and plotting their escape through song right under their captors’ noses.

Steal Away" ("Steal Away to Jesus")

"Steal Away" is an African American Negro spiritual that was written and first sung at an unknown time, but prior to the year 1862. This song was sung by enslaved African Americans across the states of the United States. Within the lyrics, there are several lines that speak of the means and ways to escape their captivity under the cover of darkness. In one line, the song states "Steal away, steal away home, I hain't got long to stay here..."

The slaves were expressing their plan to escape without their captors giving it much thought. In another part of the song, the slaves would sing: "My lord, he calls me. He calls me by the thunder. The trumpet sounds within my soul. I ain't got long to stay here." The trumpet gives the motif of a call-to-action, but a slave, specifically, the trumpet symbolizes a clear representation of a call to freedom. In another line, the song speaks of thunder ("My lord calls me by the thunder"), and to a slave, they knew that their best chance of escape was under the veil of night and rain, for then they could not be spotted easily and the hound dogs could not track them as well or at all.

"Wade in the Water"
The infamous song "Wade in the Water" was another song used and sung during the time of slavery. Though it was first published a few decades after the end of slavery, in 1901 in an African American Jubliee songbook, the origin of that song is from the black people enslaved during the 1700 and early 1800s. Due to this origin, the original authors or songwriters are unknown, as well as the year. However, this infamous song has been heard all over the nation and was used to help slaves escape to northern using the Underground Railroad.

While this song was sung by slaves working the fields, it also believed that this song was sung by Harriet Tubman during her 13 trips back down south to free those who were still enslaved. It is believed she used this song to warn the people she was freeing to get off the trail and into the water to prevent the captors' s dogs from following their trail.  The phrases "Wade in the water" and "God's gonna trouble the water," symbolize the connection and faith the slaves had in God, while also symbolizing and telling the slaves how escape the hunters and their dogs.

These two songs are only some that slaves created to relay information to one another about the call to freedom. Songs like these helped countless slaves muster up the courage to take the first leap to freedom, and then continue on their course.

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