Will the Circle Be Unbroken?: The Sacred Music of the African American Diaspora

Songs of the Underground Railroad

Music was the secret language of the Underground Railroad.

The path to freedom on the Underground Railroad was fraught with danger. How did fugitive slaves know which way to go? How did people communicate across hundreds of miles when to come out of hiding could mean death? Part of the answer lies in music. Songs were used in everyday life by African slaves. Singing was tradition brought from Africa by the first slaves and were used to inspire and motivate, or to express their values and solidarity with each other and during celebrations. Because it was illegal to teach slaves to read or write in most southern states, songs were also used as tools to remember and communicate.

During the time of the Underground Railroad, spirituals were coded with hidden messages about maps, navigational strategies and timing for slaves to escape toward freedom in the Northern States and Canada.  Some songs gave directions about when, where, and how to escape while others warned of danger along the way. Harriet Tubman, known by many as “Moses,” famously used music to communicate with travelers. Because there is no written proof of these songs or their secret codes, some scholars are skeptical of their origins. But many others accept them as part of the rich oral tradition of African American folk songs that continue to influence American music today.

"Go Down Moses" depicts the biblical story of Moses in Exodus leading his people to freedom. It is believed to be a coded reference to the conductors on the Underground Railroad, particularly Harriet Tubman, who was known as “The Moses of her people.” In one interpretation of the song, "Israel" represents enslaved African Americans, while "Egypt" and "Pharaoh" represent the slavemaster. Going "down" to Egypt is derived from the Bible; the Old Testament recognizes the Nile Valley as lower than Jerusalem and the Promised Land; thus, going to Egypt means going "down" while going away from Egypt is "up". In the context of American slavery, this ancient sense of "down" converged with the concept of down the Mississippi, where slaves' conditions were notoriously worse. Hear the Albert McNeil Jubilee Singers perform "Go Down Moses."

One of the best examples of a “map song,” “Follow The Drinking Gourd” contains essential directions for slaves trying to escape. It mentions the beginning of spring, which was the best time to set out for the long journey North. The most famous clue is the drinking gourd, a reference to the Big Dipper constellation. By following the line of the Dipper to the north star, travelers had a guide in the night sky that pointed them toward freedom.

The words of spirituals often had a double meaning. On the surface, “Steal away to Jesus” meant dying and going to heaven, but it also could mean song that the person singing it is planning to escape. Another song, "O Canaan," was sung to signal preparation for an escape to Canada.  “Steal Away” symbolized hope for a better life for slaves, either in freedom or in heaven.

Legend has it that “Wade In The Water,” was used by Harriet Tubman and others to tell fugitive slaves how to evade pursuit and avoid capture. If they thought they were being followed, hiding in the water would conceal them and throw bloodhounds off their scent. “Moses” refers to Tubman herself, who led hundreds from slavery into freedom on the Underground Railroad. Hear the Golden Gate Quartet perform "Wade in the Water."

One of the most enduring songs of this time period, “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot” is another spiritual full of double meanings and is said to be Harriet Tubman’s favorite. If a slave heard this song in the South, they knew they it was time to prepare for escape. The “band of angels” referred to the conductors of the Underground Railroad (sweet chariot), who would soon come south (swing low), to guide the slave north to freedom (carry me home). Hear Marion Williams perform "Swing Low, Sweet Chariot."

Explore the African Diaspora Sacred Music and Musicians Sheet Music Collection

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