Underground Railroad and Music in Ministry
Zion’s Book Club recently studied Colson Whitehead’s “The Underground Railroad”. The songs of the Underground Railroad were both spiritual and work songs used during the early and mid—19th century to encourage and express coded information to escaping slaves as they moved along the various “Underground Railroad“ routes. It was illegal in most slave states to teach slaves to read or write. Songs were used to communicate messages and directions about when, where, and how to escape, and warned of dangers and obstacles along the route.
LET US BREAK BREAD TOGETHER ON OUR KNEES- A coded call for a secret meeting or gathering in the morning (at or before sunrise) to discuss issues of concern, plans of escape or for a time of prayer.
WADE IN THE WATER – A favorite of mine, this is a spiritual of great power and hope that was also used to give practical reminders to fugitives … travel near rivers and streams for cover, safety, food and direction.
GO DOWN MOSES – Slaves understood the message of the Bible story of Moses leading his people to freedom in a way that slave owners often overlooked. In a marvelous example of coded language, they could sing about this story right in front of the master. The name MOSES might refer to the biblical character or to a Conductor. (Harriet Tubman, John Brown or others) PHAROAH (the Slaveholder) would not expect ISRAEL (the slaves) to make an attempt to leave EGYPT (bondage) for the PROMISED LAND (freedom). The possibility of meeting death on John Brown’s Trail was a vibrant and ever-present reality. On the eve of escape, this song of faith gave voice to the fears and the hope of those willing to risk all for freedom.
STEAL AWAY – HARRIET TUBMAN, one of the most famous UGRR conductors, made over 19 trips South after her own harrowing escape. She is believed to have freed about 300 people while inspiring thousands to action. The verse: “Green trees are bending, Poor sinners stand a-trembling;
The trumpet sounds within my soul, I ain’t got long to stay here” is part of Harriet’s special song that announced her arrival to potential Passengers. Slaves who decided to escape might sing Steal Away to alert family and friends of their intentions.
FOLLOW THE DRINKING GOURD -The Drinking Gourd was a code for the Big Dipper. Fugitives used this clearly visible constellation to locate the North Star as they made their way over mountains, through valleys and across unfamiliar terrain. This “map song” contains both general and some specific directions, including a reminder to use moss to find the way North. (“Dead trees will show you the way!”)
DEEP RIVER / SWING LOW – Rivers played an important role on the Freedom Road. An escaping slave would find more safety by rivers and streams than on the established roads. “Crossing over Jordan” is another biblical reference to freedom from bondage. Harriet Tubman loved Swing Low Sweet Chariot. As she lay dying, she sang the song with her relatives gathered at her bedside.
The hymns and spirituals we sing today, collections of various backgrounds, beliefs, colors and creeds, and just like the spirituals used in the Underground Railroad, have an outward purpose. We reach out through music in many ways today: every time we sing at a memorial service, take carols to a care home, every time we begin a Palm Sunday service outdoors or take part in a community Good Friday Walk. Local church choirs even sing at both the Nationals and Orioles ball games. We may be surprised at the places and ways in which we may be called to witness. Today the hymns and songs we sing are beautiful, rich in spirit and reveal the hope, faith and love of all people including those still seeking basic freedoms. We use our music traditions, and passions to express our faith, strengthen relationships, and to communicate important information that helps lead us all on the road to freedom!
Director of Music Ministries
Submitted by David Miller