661 Plays

I'm On My Way: Songs of slavery & liberation

The African-American spiritual, somewhere between a hymn and a chant, is thought to have developed in the first half of the nineteenth century although the earliest written records of them date from around the time of the Civil War. Spirituals were first sung by slaves and that experience is at the root of the imagery in these songs. The Jews of the Old Testament suffered two lengthy periods of captivity in foreign lands: the first in Egypt, where they were held as slaves before being led to freedom by Moses in a divinely-assisted exodus over the Red Sea; the second time in Babylon, where they were carted off as captives following a devastating military defeat. These episodes are key traumas within the biblical narrative of Jewish history and also served as poignant metaphors for the African slaves of the American south, most famously in the spiritual Go Down Moses, with it’s repeated plea to ‘let my people go!’.

The very same biblical stories feature often in the Rastafarian lyrics of ‘roots’ reggae. Not only is the experience of slavery a shared point of reference for Jamaican artists, but Babylon became the accepted term for the system of oppression and false gods against which Rastas struggle. It was the Babylonian ruler Nebuchadnezzar who subjected the “Hebrew chill’un” (Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego ) of Didn’t My Lord Deliver Daniel to the fiery furnace, a punishment for refusing to bow down in worship before a statue of the tyrant. (Daniel’s own imprisonment with the lions of Babylon was a later episode, set after most of his fellow Israelites have been returned to Judea following their release. In both cases, the victims were delivered from harm by angelic protectors.)

Obviously many of the spirituals evoke slavery in general terms by singing of oppression and overwhelming sorrow (Nobody Knows the Trouble I’ve Seen, I’ve Been ‘Buked and I’ve Been Scorned) of being ‘a long way from home’ (Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child), and of a longing for a being in a better place (Balm in Gilead, I’m On My Way). But these days it is common to interpret some of these songs in much more specific terms as coded references to actual escape along the Underground Railroad. Thus Wade in the Water, which superficially conflates the exodus of the Jews across the Red Sea with the miraculous healing pool of Bethesda (described in John’s gospel), is said to be telling its listeners how to throw off the slave masters’ pursuing bloodhounds. Follow the Drinking Gourd has been claimed as ‘map song’ of the Underground Railroad, describing an escape route from Alabama to the Ohio river (the Drinking Gourd of the title being the constellation of the Plough/Big Dipper, which points to the North Star). Although the authenticity of this now popular reading has been questioned (this song may have nineteenth-century roots but was not written down until the 1920s, and the crucial line ‘the old man is waiting to carry you to freedom’ apparently not inserted until about twenty years later), I think the longing for escape to a place of safety is an undeniable thread in many of the spirituals. To take the lyrics of I’m On My Way, you can choose whether or not you accept that the ‘Canaan Land’ where the singer is heading was originally understood as a code word for Canada. (Canada was the ultimate haven for runaway slaves after the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 made even the northern states of the union unsafe. Interestingly, Didn’t My Lord Deliver Daniel also talks of arriving via ‘the gospel ship’ on Canaan’s shore, from where ‘I’ll never come back no more’.) Yet the song overtly alludes to the Jews’ journey from bondage in Egypt to the promised land, and the verse ‘if you won’t go, don’t you hinder me’ sounds very much like a declaration of self-emancipation of some sort. Or take Sinner man’s desperate journey in search of a hiding place – his flight has always stuck me as more suggestive of an earthly pursuit than an attempt to evade divine providence.

With the end of the Civil War, the spiritual tradition waned and, but for the efforts of folklorists who transcribed those that they came across, all such slave songs would probably have been lost to history (most undoubtedly were). In the twentieth century they found new advocates, notably the wonderful, multi-talented Paul Robeson, whose passionate left-wing convictions probably found an echo in the spirituals he helped to make widely known. They were performed regularly by gospel groups (such as the Dixie Hummingbirds, Golden Gate Quartet, Blind Boys of Alabama and the Harmonising Four) and would ultimately serve as cultural nourishment for the Civil Rights movement in the 1950s and 60s. Some of the anthems of the movement were simple adaptations of nineteenth-century songs (the playlist ends with a Civil Rights era update of I’m On My Way, with ‘Canaan Land’ replaced by ‘Freedom Land’). Others certainly drew on their melodies and phrasings. Josh White’s Freedom Road (with wartime anti-fascist lyrics by Langston Hughes) recycles When the Saints Go Marching In. The best-known of all Civil Rights songs, We Shall Overcome, may have originated in black churches in the early twentieth century (the union movement later took it up and changed the words from ‘I will overcome’ to give it a collective flavour) but it reuses the tune of No More Auction Block For Me - a song of ex-slaves from the Civil War period. The same song also provided Bob Dylan with the melody for Blowin’ in the Wind (covered here by Odetta, in a delicately haunting version).

When Martin Luther King, Jr. ended his unforgettable speech at the 1963 March on Washington by citing ‘the words of the old Negro spiritual, “Free At Last”’, he was of course pointing up the contemporary political resonance of the old slave songs. But this connection was perhaps even more clearly expressed by the musical line-up on that day. To entertain the crowds between the speeches Odetta performed I’m On My Way, ‘queen of gospel’ Mahalia Jackson sang I’ve Been ‘Buked, Peter, Paul and Mary sang Dylan’s Blowin’ in the Wind and Joan Baez led the rally in We Shall Overcome. (Josh White also sang at the event. Interesting trivia note: leading march organiser Bayard Rustin had sung in Josh White’s band in the late 30s. The two men first met when both appeared in a musical - alongside Paul Robeson!)

The story goes that Sam Cooke was so struck that ‘a white boy’ (Dylan) has written Blowin’ in the Wind that, in late 1963, he felt driven to write his own statement song on American racism: A Change is Gonna Come. And personally, I’m pretty convinced that Cooke looked to the familiar phrases of the spiritual tradition when he wrote this Civil Rights anthem. Just compare some of the lyrics:

“It’s been too hard living … / But I know a change is gonna come” (A Change is Gonna Come)

“I had a mighty hard time, But I'm on my way.” (I’m On My Way)

“There been times that I thought I couldn’t last for long” (A Change is Gonna Come)

“Sometimes I feel like I’m almos’ gone” (Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child)

“I went, I went to my brother / And I asked him, ‘Brother / Could you help me, please?’ / He said, ‘Good sister / I'd like to but I'm not able’” (A Change is Gonna Come, as sung by Aretha Franklin)

“Well I run to the rock, ‘please hide me’ … / But the rock cried out, ‘I can’t hide you’.” (Sinnerman, as sung by Nina Simone):

At the same time, jazz groups were hinting at political messages by playing instrumental interpretations of the old spirituals. There are some grooving examples here from Grant Green, the Ramsey Lewis Trio and the Afro-Blues Quintet. And if you’ve been dipping into my other playlists then you may remember I’m On My Way from its Afro-Cuban treatment by conguero Candido (Make It Funky!) and Wade in the Water from the Jack McDuff’s rousing Hammond rendition (see Can’t Be Still).



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