Services at 10:30 am every Sunday
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Freedom Songs

(After Swing Low, Sweet Chariot)

What do you think that song is about? (responses)

I ask because, for the songs we’re going to sing together today, there may be more than meets the eye. The music we call spirituals, that arose from the experience of slavery in the United States, was a special form of communication among an oppressed people. They had been ripped from their African homeland, shipped across the ocean, and forced to work on American soil — and in the process, they had been converted to Christianity, the faith of their captors. The Bible stories with which they resonated the most were those of Moses and the Exodus. And as we have been reading through those stories over the past several weeks I thought it would be appropriate to spend a Sunday singing some of those freedom songs.

There are scholars who believe that most of these songs have more than one meaning. The white masters could be listening to their slaves singing and they’d think, “Oh, they are so happy, and they’re so religious, singing so enthusiastically about those Bible stories!” But what the masters didn’t know (according to this school of thought, at least) is that these songs were used, not only to comfort and give hope of a better day in heaven, but to communicate instructions about escaping to the North.

Pay attention, as we sing, to the images in the lyrics. The River Jordan, so these scholars claims, was code for the Ohio River, which was the boundary between the slave states and the free northern ones. Canaan is said to be code for Canada. Going into the water? Baptism, yes — but that was also how you could evade the bloodhounds tracking your scent. And a chariot, or a train? That was a reference to the Underground Railroad, that network that helped escaped slaves find their way north, hiding them in wagons, leading them in the dark through the streams, and providing safe shelter along the way.

So Swing Low, Sweet Chariot could indeed be talking about the chariot that took the prophet Ezekiel up into heaven — and about dying and finding sweet rest in the afterlife — but it could also be a signal that an underground railroad conductor would soon be passing by with a horse and cart, ready to transport runaway slaves to a better place.  

Let’s sing some more, and put our listening ears on.

Wade in the Water

There are often multiple biblical references in these songs. You might remember the story of Jesus healing a paralytic who had laid for 30 years next to the Pool of Bethesda, where it was said an angel would “stir up the water” (perhaps a reference to volcanic activity) and the first one to get in would be healed. But then there’s also the “host dressed in white” and the “band dressed in red” — which could be biblical angels, or something about what the “safe person” would be wearing. And as I alluded to before, there’s Moses, and the Jordan, and wading into the water for safety.

I’ll bet, now that you’ve got your ears on, you’ll hear the obvious messages in this one:

Steal Away

Can you just imagine? “Tonight’s the night! I ain’t got long to stay here.” And perhaps they were to take off under the cover of a storm that night.

More controversial than the contention that there were “codes” in the spirituals is a similar claim about quilt patterns — for example, that a star design represented the North Star, the “flying geese” square was likewise about going northward, and that the “log cabin” design would denote the location of a safe house.

This next song has connections not just to slave times but to the civil rights movement. Let’s see if you hear the messages in this one:

The Gospel Train

How many of you remember the Freedom Riders? These groups of white and black activists took interstate buses to the south in the early 1960s to challenge illegal segregation policies there. “No second class aboard this train, no difference in the fare.” It was reported that when sitting in jail, these young people sang freedom songs to keep up their spirits.

Now, this next song has an unusual history. It was written down by an abolitionist named Charles Ware, who was sent to supervise plantations on St. Helena Island off the coast of South Carolina, which were abandoned by the white occupants in the face of a Navy blockade during the Civil War. Ware wrote down the song as he heard the freed slaves sing it. It seems to talk of the archangel Michael rowing the boat over the river to heaven; the slaves sang it as they rowed toward the coast. There are many, many versions and verses to this song, but we’ll sing the version popularized by the 1960s folk music group called the Highwaymen.

Michael, Row the Boat Ashore

Harry Belafonte sang a different rendition which referenced Christianity, American slavery, and the civil rights movement. It closes with these verses:

They nailed Jesus to the Cross, Hallelujah
But his faith was never lost, Hallelujah
So Christian soldiers off to war, Hallelujah
Hold that line in Arkansas, Hallelujah
Like Joshua at Jericho, Hallelujah
Alabama’s next to go, Hallelujah
So Mississippi kneel and pray, Hallelujah
Some more buses on the way, Hallelujah

This last one tells much of the Exodus story, but I’m wondering if anyone here knows whose “trademark song” this was:

Go Down, Moses

She was called “the Black Moses” — and you guessed it: Harriet Tubman. (I hope you’ve heard her story, and if you haven’t, or need a refresher, please look her up!)

We’re going to move into the celebration of communion, now…

  • All are welcome
  • Bring your offering
  • We’ll sing another spiritual Let Us Break Bread Together
  • Windsor Strings will take communion first and get back onto platform for our last song
  • Reminder that the Last Supper was a Passover meal