The Secret Language of the Negro Spiritual

By: Lundyn Ross and Kayla Ary

The Negro spiritual was a genre of American folk music common in the 1800s among enslaved African people. Most Negro spirituals had a double entendre. They were a version of song for enslaved individuals, and they communicated secret messages and protests among enslaved individuals. For example, slaves would use spirituals such as “Steal away to Jesus” and “I got my ticket” to communicate messages related to escaping slavery and the Underground Railroad.

Part of the way inidiviuals communicated across the world without any technology lies within music. Since it was illegal to teach slaves to read or write in most southern states, songs coded with secret messages were used to convey information about the route North. Some songs gave directions about when, where, and how to escape while others warned of danger along the way. It is rare to come across first hand evidence because assisting slaves to freedom was forbidden. Since there is no written proof of these songs or their secret codes, some scholars are skeptical of their origins. But many others accept them as part of the rich oral tradition of African American folk songs that continue to influence American music today.

“Steal away to Jesus” was possibly used to communicate a plan to escape. “I got my ticket” is speculated to be almost an announcement that there was an  organized plan to escape by way of the Underground Railroad. “Go Down, Moses” is a spiritual that is known to be used by Harriet Tubman to inform slaves of her arrival to take those willing to escape up north. “Follow the Drinking Gourd”, “O Canaan”, and “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot” are other well-known spirituals known to communicate codified messages related to escaping slavery and the Underground Railroad.

Legend has it that “Wade In The Water,” which used Biblical imagery to evade suspicion, was used by Harriet Tubman to tell fugitive slaves how to avoid capture. If they thought they were being followed, hiding in the water would conceal them and throw bloodhounds off their scent. “Moses” refers to Tubman herself, who led hundreds from slavery into freedom on the Underground Railroad.

Sources:

African American Spirituals. Web. Retrieved from the Library of Congress, <www.loc.gov/item/ihas.200197495/>.

 
Burnim, Mellonee V., Maultsby, Portia K. “Spirituals.” African American Music, Routledge, 2015, pp. 50-71.