One important purpose of many spirituals during the slave period was to provide motivation and inspiration for the ongoing struggle for freedom, a struggle which included systematic efforts to escape5 from bondage as well as numerous slave-led revolts and insurrections6. In the African tradition, stories of ancestors’ bravery, victories in battle, and success in overcoming past hardships were often marshaled as inspiration to face current life challenges. As stories of specific African ancestors faded over time, enslaved people appropriated heroes from the Christian Bible as ancestral equivalents7.
The stories of Old Testament figures – often perceived by enslaved Africans as freedom fighters – held particular significance as models of inspiration. For example, a surviving spiritual entitled “Moses,” and still sung today in the Georgia Sea Islands, draws its inspiration from the Biblical story of Moses, commanded by God to lead the Hebrew people out of Egyptian bondage. Since Moses was also the name by which the famous Underground Railroad conductor Harriet Tubman was known, the song operates on at least two levels: 1) It draws on the Biblical story of Moses as a source of inspiration, and 2) it offers encouragement to the African American “Moses” – Harriet Tubman – in her divinely inspired work. The lyrics point to the danger surrounding the Underground Railroad: the danger of approaching horsemen on a chase, the risk of getting caught and rendezvous points (e.g., the graveyard), the risk of disapproval by children or other relatives. The lyrics also provide a picture of the sacred aura surrounding the work of the Underground Railroad: “Jordan rolling,” “angels moanin’!”
As another example, “Go Down, Moses,” similar in meaning to “Moses, Moses,” has been a staple of the concert spirituals tradition that has featured solo artists and choral ensembles in world-wide performances dating back to the 1870s tours of the Fisk Jubilee Singers8, and continuing with the performances of diverse artists and ensembles up to the present day. The singer-activist Paul Robeson, for example, sang “Go Down, Moses” frequently in his concerts, and his comments about spirituals as songs of inspiration in the continuing struggle for freedom9 were very much in line with the tradition of spirituals as songs of inspiration and motivation during the slave period.
In “Joshua Fit (Fought) the Battle of Jericho,” another of the many spirituals that Robeson performed frequently in his public concerts, both the upbeat rhythms and lyrics of the song provided a needed burst of energy and inspiration for weary activists. The metaphorical text of the song is drawn from the Biblical story of Joshua and his band of musicians who, bearing the ark of God, successfully brought down the walls of the city of Jericho through the spirited use of trumpets and other musical instruments. It is almost as if the creator of this song were saying, “If Joshua could achieve victory over evil through the blowing of trumpets, then we can ultimately achieve victory over evil (slavery) through the singing of our songs!” Ultimately, lyrics, melody and rhythm combine to help us understand why “Joshua Fit the Battle of Jericho” has been a perennial favorite of both singers and listeners.
Two other examples that illustrate the way in which spirituals provided inspiration for freedom fighting efforts in slavery are the well-known songs “Didn’t My Lord Deliver Daniel?” and “Didn’t It Rain?” Both are songs that re-tell Old Testament stories. “Didn’t My Lord Deliver Daniel?” tells the story of Daniel in the lions’ den, who is protected from harm through divine intervention. “Didn’t It Rain?” recounts the story of Noah and the Ark, in which God spares the life of Noah, the righteous man, while drowning the rest of the world in floods brought on through 40 days and nights of continuous rain. Both stories highlight the idea of the mistreated but righteous servant who is ultimately protected by God, thereby upsetting the socially proscribed power hierarchy. The metaphorical parallels to the lives and struggles of enslaved people are quite clear.
Ann Hagedorn, Beyond the River: The Untold Story of the Heroes of the Underground Railroad, New York: Simon & Schuster, 2002
George and Willene Hendrick, Fleeing for Freedom: Stories of the Underground Railroad, Chicago: Ivan R. Dee, 2004
Kate Larson, Bound for the Promised Land: Harriet Tubman, Portrait of an American Hero, New York: Ballantine, 2004
Jacqueline Tobin, Hidden in Plain View: A Secret Story of Quilts and the Underground Railroad, New York: Doubleday, 1999
Hebert Aptheker, American Negro Slave Revolts, New York: International Publishers, 1963
Eugene D. Genovese, From Rebellion to Revolution: Afro-American Slave Revolts in the Making of the Modern World, Baton Rouge, Louisiana State University Press, 1969
Vincent Harding, There is a River: The Black Struggle for Freedom in America, New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1981
Arthur C. Jones, Wade in the Water: The Wisdom of the Spirituals, Chapter 3, Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1993, 1999
Lawrence Levine, Black Culture and Black Consciousness, New York: Oxford University Press, 1977