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.

Henry Edward Krehbiel

While browsing the African American Newspapers database, I came across a short article  talking about a Mr. Krehbiel’s recent lecture on “Folk Music. ” Published in 1897, this article caught my eye because the subject matter – folk music in general but occasionally discussed southern black folk music – present was described as “new.” The fact that Mr. Krehbiel was talking about African-American folk music in an educational setting (implied by the text of the article) prompted me to search for more about him.

Henry Edward Krehbiel.

Henry Edward Krehbiel was an American music critic and musicologist who lived from 1854 to 1923. Although he studied law, he went on to become a music critic with the New York Tribune, where he stayed until his passing. For more than forty-three years, he was considered the leading music critic in America, analyzing all facets of music composed in America, including works by Richard Wagner, Johannes Brahms, Antonín Dvořák, Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky (composers he supported before they became popular), and African-American Folk Music. This, in particular, is important as it indicates that Krehbiel was one of the earliest researchers to go beyond recording or transcribing Black folk music and study the characteristics in relation other folk music (Russian, Swedish, etc…).

Henry Krehbiel’s “Afro-American Folksongs.” St. Olaf Libraries call number: ML3556.K9 1914

In 1914, Krehbiel published a book entitled Afro-American Folksongs with the following intention:


“This book was written with the purpose of bringing a species of folksong into the field of study of scientific observation and presenting it as fit material for artistic treatment.”

In part, Krehbiel is acknowledging the lack of study on African American Folk Music and, by doing so, is giving it and the black community more credibility than what was not common in that era. When searching St. Olaf’s database, I was pleased to find that the school did own a copy of the (I believe) original book! As mentioned earlier, this book is one of the first scientific studies into African American Folk Music and sought to compare the characteristics (rhythm, intervals, and structure) of that music with folk music of other regions.

Returning back to the original article, Henry Krehbiel held lectures on “Folk Music” before and after the publication of this review in the New York Tribune. It is indicated in the text that this article followed the third installment of his “Folk Music” lecturesThe significance of thesis lectures, articles, and of Krehbiel’s book is it provides insight into how people first viewed African-American folk music as research began on it.



The Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Division of Art, Prints and Photographs: Print Collection, The New York Public Library. “Henry Edward Krehbiel, 1854-1923.” New York Public Library Digital Collections. Accessed October 10, 2017. http://digitalcollections.nypl.org/items/510d47e2-a83a-a3d9-e040-e00a18064a99

Krehbiel, Henry Edward. Afro-American Folksongs : A Study in Racial and National Music. 4th ed. New York: G. Schirmer, 1914.

“Mr. Krehbiel On Folk Music.” New York Tribune. Mar 2, 1897: African American Newspapers, Readex. 9 Oct, 2017 <http://infoweb.newsbank.com/>