Perhaps the best known use of spirituals in the service of freedom during the slave period was the imbedding of “hidden” or coded messages in song lyrics for the purpose of clandestine (secret) communication on the Underground Railroad12. One of the first public revelations by a former slave of this practice of secret communication through spirituals is found in the autobiographical writings of the noted Black abolitionist Frederick Douglass, in which Douglass revealed to his readers that some songs interpreted by outsiders as referring to life after death in Heaven13, were actually understood within the enslaved African community as signifying a determination to reach freedom in the North, outside the reach and power of Southern plantation owners.
Two common types of coded spirituals were signal songs and map songs. In a signal song14, a singer or group of singers communicated in code that a certain event – such as a planned escape from a plantation – was imminent. In a map song, the lyrics actually contained elements of a map that directed people to significant points of escape along the routes of the Underground Railroad. The most famous map song was “Follow the Drinking Gourd,”15 which used the metaphor of a drinking gourd to symbolize the constellation of stars known as the Big Dipper, containing the North Star, an important compass guide for individuals and families who needed to be certain that they were continuing to travel in the direction of north as they made their way to freedom.
It is very likely that both signal songs and map songs were utilized in combination with any number of other clandestine communication tools, including the extensive use of symbols sewn onto quilts16 that assisted prospective “passengers” on the Underground Railroad in rehearsing the specific places that would need to be reached for a successful trip to safety in the North or Canada.
It is worth noting that in all of the categories of spirituals discussed earlier in this section (singing as an expression of democratic values and community solidarity; singing as a source of inspiration and motivation; singing as an expression of protest), coded communication was always prevalent in varying degrees. Since the struggle for freedom17 was such a salient part of daily life experience of enslaved people, it was critical for them to have a safe means of communication with each other, and their songs were an essential tool in this effort.
was a favorite air, and had a double meaning. In the lips of some, it meant the expectation of a speedy summons to a world of spirits; but in the lips of our company, it simply meant a speedy pilgrimage toward a free state , and deliverance from all the evils and dangers of slavery.
Coded (signal) meaning: “An escape attempt has failed. We’re all trying to re-group, emotionally and spiritually.”Swing Low, Sweet Chariot
Coded (signal) meaning: “’Chariot’ drivers (Underground Railroad ‘conductors’) are arriving soon. Be alert and ready to leave.Steal Away
Coded (signal) meaning: “Get ready to attend the secret worship service in the woods tonight.” Or: “The time has finally arrived. We’re getting out of here (escaping from the plantation) tonight!Wade in the Water
Coded (signal) meaning: “When you escape and are attempting to connect to the next relay point on the Underground Railroad, make sure that you go wade through water to thrown the bloodhounds off your scent.”
Arthur C. Jones, Wade in the Water: The Wisdom of the Spirituals (especially Chapter 3, “Struggle and Resistance.”), Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1993, 1999