It is so amazing how music shows just how often life intersects with faith. Our music minister, Lynn, has always been interested in Folk music traditions and wrote a fantastic piece on African American spirituals, and their connection to faith and freedom.
“Steal away, steal away, steal away to Jesus. Steal away, steal away home. I ain’t got long to stay here. My Lord, He calls me. He calls me by the thunder. The trumpet sounds within-a my soul. I ain’t got long to stay here.”
-African American spiritual
Dear Brothers and Sisters in Christ,
I have a great love of folk music of many kinds. It’s probably because I grew up listening to albums (vinyl for the younger generation) by The Weavers; Peter, Paul and Mary; Joan Baez; Judy Collins; Pete Seeger and other folk musicians from the 50’s and 60’s. My parents also had several albums by Mahalia Jackson, one of their favorite singers, so I heard wonderful renditions of African-American spirituals and gospel music. And then on TV we listened to Leslie Uggams on the Mitch Miller Show (remember that?), and other wonderful artists. So included in my love of folk music is a special love for the “genre” of African-American spirituals.
There are 15 spirituals included in our Evangelical Lutheran Worship Hymnal (I counted). They include a lot of well-loved songs: Were You There, Give Me Jesus, Let Us Break Bread Together, Go Tell it on the Mountain, Balm in Gilead, and others.
Spirituals come specifically from that period in our country’s history when Africans and their descendants were held as slaves. Composer and arranger Moses Hogan said: “For people toiling under brutal conditions at tasks for which they would reap no reward, the biblical notions of liberation from bondage and of spiritual freedom even in the midst of captivity took on a deep significance.”
Sometimes the slaves were allowed their own worship services separate from the white master’s worship, but often their services were conducted in secret because of fears that the gatherings would incite rebellion. The words of their songs often took on hidden meaning, especially as the Abolitionist movement grew and means of secret communication became necessary along the “Underground Railroad”. Again I quote from Hogan: “references to “heaven” or “my Father’s house” might refer to Canada… Other coded terms included “River Jordan” which might refer to the Ohio River,” the dividing line between North and South.
One of the spirituals in the ELW is Wade in the Water. The hidden messages in this song include using the water as a way to hide scents from dogs chasing escapees; Moses possibly being a reference to Harriet Tubman (nicknamed Moses), an escaped slave who returned to aid others; following to Jordan’s stream referring to freedom. Even the spiritual Let Us Break Bread Together has been mentioned as having hidden meanings. The reference to falling on your knees facing the rising sun, is said to not only be helping teach directions (the sun rises in the east which then helps teach how to head north), but that it calls for meeting before or at dawn, while still dark, and kneeling to be able to draw in the dirt to share information.
There are several good books on the subject of spirituals, how they became part of our greater American culture (especially through groups such as the Fisk Jubilee Singers), and the hidden references in many. There are also some books about how African-American quilting was also used as a means of communication to help escapes. I hope you’re interested enough to go searching for more information.
In Christ’s love,
Interested in reading more about the African American Spirituals? Start with a few links to resources we’ve found:
“Digital History: Negro Spirituals”: http://ctl.du.edu/spirituals/History/
“Sweet Chariot: The Story of the Spirituals”: http://www.digitalhistory.uh.edu/learning_history/spirituals/spirituals_menu.cfm
McGraw-Hill’s Spotlight on Music: http://spotlightonmusic.macmillanmh.com/n/teachers/articles/folk-and-traditional-styles/african-american-spirituals