Tunes of Trials and Songs of Survival


Beginning with the African slaves who were seized and exported across the Atlantic in the midst of the Middle Passage, singing (negro spirituals) has been embedded in the culture of African Americans. Coming from different countries, slaves, cultures and tribes, utilized singing as a method to interface during the journey. Singing as a form of communication is deeply rooted in African American culture.

Through these songs, slaves had the ability to find countrymen, women and kin. Between 1760 and 1770, a white crewman who had made four voyages to Africa claimed “they would sing frequently, the men and women answering another, but what is the subject of their songs [I] cannot say”. Despite being ignorant to the point of the spirituals, the crew on the ship were able to catch the tones of sorrow within them.

Music in general was a method for the slaves to convey their feelings, be it joy, sorrow, hope, or inspiration. Influenced by religious and African traditions, these songs would later form to become what’s known today as “Negro Spirituals”. The term Negro Spiritual was recognized by Colonel Thomas W. Higginson of the 54th Massachusetts Regiment, as he had heard songs on the marches with soldiers of color and within camps. 

Harriet Tubman– aka the “Moses of Her People– was the Conductor of the Underground Railroad. No one knows the exact amount of people she led to freedom, but she was able to facilitate a network of depots and the operators assisted in helping the escaped slaves to freedom up North. One of the more popular Negro Spirituals was often used in the Underground Railroad, called “Wade in the Water”, and though it hasn’t been shown to be true, it’s widely supposed that Harriet Tubman utilized this spiritual as a course of action to alert the escaping slaves to get in the water in order to mask their scent of slave-catching dogs which were on their trail. 

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