Let My People Go: Moses in African American Spirituals

The traditional lyrics and melody. Burleigh, H.T. “Go Down, Moses (Let My People Go!),” in Negro Spirituals (New York: G. Ricordi, 1917),https://library.duke.edu/dig italcollections/hasm_n0708/.

After relentless, long and hard days working in the fields, enslaved black people had little in forms of comfort. Singing spirituals was one way for enslaved people to come together, to sing about their hardships, to praise God, and to lift their spirits. Although some scholars, such as George Pullen Jackson,1 have argued that spirituals stem directly from white Protestant music, spiritual songs centered on Moses and the Israelites’ escape from Egyptian slavery, such as “Go Down, Moses”, highlight how the slave experience distinctly shaped African American spirituals.

In the numerous songs featuring the biblical character of Moses, “Go Down, Moses” is the most popular. This as well as other Moses songs directly reflects enslaved people’s longing for freedom. For many enslaved people, Moses was representative of the brave “conductors” of the Underground Railroad, such as Harriet Tubman, that guided enslaved people to freedom.2 The lyrics of “Go Down Moses” indicating that Moses, someone who did not have as much power as the Pharaoh, could defy him and demand “to let [his] people go!” was incredibly powerful for enslaved people who dreamed of defying their master. In many ways it became a way of defying their master even if they did not run away.3

Although this version of “Go Down Moses” remains the most popular, other versions also highlight connections between the African-American slaves and the Israelites. In John Davis’s version of “Go Down, Moses”, he reveals that the chariot symbolizes the Underground Railroad and the “rivers rolling” as the rivers that runaway slaves would cross though to lose their scent.4 Although the lyrics are different, the message remains the same: a dream and a reflection on the fight for freedom.

Krehbiel’s assertion that “Nowhere save on the plantations of the south could the emotional life which is essential to the development of true folksong be developed”5 rings true in “Go Down, Moses”. Although whites may have shared Christianity with enslaved blacks, they could not emote the same connection with the enslaved Israelites. The emotion present in the slow, melancholy song in the video and sheet music above reveals the deep sadness of living in slavery and a longing for freedom that only enslaved people could understand.

1 Jackson, George Pullen. “Negro-Borrowed Tunes are Traced Back to Britain: Did the Black Man Compose Religious Songs?,” in White and Negro Spirituals, Their Life Span and Kinship: Tracing 200 Years of Untrammeled Song Making and Singing Among Our Country Folk, (New York: J.J. Augustin, 1943): 264-289.

2 “Georgia islands: Biblical Songs and Spirituals,” Southern Journey 12 (1998): 14.

3 Ibid.

4 Ibid.

5 Krehbiel, Henry Edward. “Songs of the American Slaves,” in Afro-American Foksongs: A Study in Racial and National Music, (1914): 22.

The Fisk Jubilee Singers and Their First Record

http://media.loc.gov/playlist/view/5A9DB5B664340160E0538C93F1160160

In 1871, George White organized the Fisk Jubilee Singers at Fisk University in Tennessee, in order to raise money for the school. They were a group of black students from Fisk University who performed spirituals in the concert setting. While previous black concert artists performed standard white repertoire, the Fisk Jubilee Singers gave performances of black music, and this music did not follow the prevalent minstrel stereotypes. In 1898, John Wesley Work II, a later director of the group, helped get the Fisk Jubilee Singers recorded. This recording here is “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot,” which was one of the Fisk Jubilee Singers’ best tunes of the time.

The Fisk Jubilee Singers had a major influence on the introduction of the spiritual into American repertoire, but the group had to adapt their style in order to have that effect. The director of the group, John Work, carried out a deal with Victor Talking Machine Company in hopes of reaching a wider audience. In Richard Crawford’s America’s Musical Life, he states that the purpose of the Fisk Jubilee Singers was to bring the history of Southern slaves into the present culture of Northern urban Protestants. The Jubilee singers dressed very properly and were polished in both behavior and musicality. They also didn’t sing in a dialect. This recording from Victor seems to have the typical sound of the Fisk Jubilee Singers, but it may not be representative of how the slaves in fields would have sung these songs. The Fisk Jubilee Singers were working against preexisting stereotypes and a racist society, so they found a more appealing sound that still maintained the idealized fervor of slave music to resonate with the white audiences. This reflects the idea of white people adapting music from other cultures or forcing others to match their own tastes of music, like we can see with Theodore F. Seward’s arrangement of Go Down Moses, in that it takes a standard spiritual and sets it within white hymnody.

While they did everything they could to appeal to their white audience, and were successful in that, they were still not always taken seriously. Even the Victor record company claimed that “they sometimes excite to laughter by their quaint conceptions of religious ideas.” The white audiences thought of them as novelties. Yet, Victor praises the Fisk Jubilee Singers’ emotional appeal to all. We should be grateful for the contributions of the Fisk Jubilee Singers, as they helped with the acceptance, development, and preservation of spirituals. It is also important to acknowledge their struggles in promoting this music and how that has affected the development of the genre.

Sources

Brooks, Tim. Lost Sounds. Champaign: University of Illinois Press, 2004. Accessed October 2, 2017. https://www.jstor.org/stable/pdf/10.5406/j.ctt2jcc81.19.pdf?refreqid=search%3Ab6add585f9e3810555f5c47c576075a2

Crawford, Richard. America’s Musical Life. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, Inc., 2001.

Fisk University Jubilee Singers. Swing Low, Sweet Chariot. Victor B-8420, 1909. mp3 Accessed October 2, 2017. http://media.loc.gov/playlist/view/5A9DB5B664340160E0538C93F1160160

Roy, William G. Reds, Whites, and Blues. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2010. Accessed October 2, 2017. https://www.jstor.org/stable/pdf/j.ctt7rgqw.5.pdf?refreqid=search%3Aeac284c272f71c57421ddda9fc0c5238

 

Tuskegee Institute Singers

Booker T Washington, the founder of both the Tuskegee Institute and the Tuskegee Institute Singers

The Tuskegee Institute is a private, historically black university in Tuskegee, Alabama. The school was founded on July 4, 1881. Three years after the school’s founding, the Tuskegee Institute Singers was formed but the by the founder of the college, Booker T Washington. The choir’s mission was to “promote the interest of Tuskegee Institute”. The ensemble’s primary purpose was to provide music at the school’s vesper services and perform at other significant functions on campus. The ensemble began as a quartet consisting of students: Hiram H. Thweatt, John F. McLeMore, Warren Logan and Robert H. Hamilton. The choir grew in size and fame as the years passed.

History class at Tuskegee University in 1902

William L. Dawson, director of the Tuskegee Choir beginning in 1931

In 1931, the choir reached 100 singers and was now under the direction of William L. Dawson. It was Dawson who brought the Tuskegee Choir to Carnegie Hall in 1932. This performance sparked further prestigious performances such as performing for President Hoover at the White House and sang on  ABC, CBS, and NBC radio networks in the years to follow. The Tuskegee Singers were the first African American performing organization to appear at Constitution Hall. During the term of John F. Kennedy, the choir was invited to sing at the National Christmas Tree Lighting in Washington DC.

The Tuskegee Choir continues to flourish today under the direction of Dr. Wayne Anthony Barr. They have toured across the United States performing at many churches and colleges releasing many recordings of their timeless spirituals such as   “Go Down Moses” (National Jukebox).

Citations

 

1Johnston, F. B., photographer. (1902) [History class, Tuskegee Institute, Tuskegee, Alabama]. Alabama Tuskegee, 1902. [Photograph] Retrieved from the Library of Congress, https://www.loc.gov/item/98503043/.

2 Jones, P. P., photographer. (1910) Booker T. Washington / Photo by Peter P. Jones, 3631 State St., Chicago. , 1910. [Approximately] [Photograph] Retrieved from the Library of Congress, https://www.loc.gov/item/2013649123/.

3 Tuskegee Institute Singers . “Go down Moses.” Camden, NJ; 31 Sept. 1914.

4 [William Dawson, head-and-shoulders portrait, facing slightly right / Moss photo, N.Y]. , None. [Between 1930 and 1950] [Photograph] Retrieved from the Library of Congress, https://www.loc.gov/item/93510796/

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