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Songs of Freedom

The seemingly innocent spirituals, as the slave songs came to be known, were more than simple hymns of endurance and a belief in a better afterlife. As sung by slaves and their descendants, the spirituals allowed the slaves to communicate secret messages and information to each other about the Underground Railroad.

The spirituals and their lyrics were part of a sophisticated system that involved no incriminating evidence for plantation owners or overseers to find. Codes imbedded in the spirituals instructed slaves as to when, how and where to escape. They also included warning signals, such as the message of “Wade in the Water”, informing slaves to travel along the riverbank so the dogs giving chase would be thrown off their scent.

Most slaves could not read or write; in fact, it was against the law to teach slaves to read or write. The spirituals provided a means of verbal, coded communication understood only by those in the Underground Railroad. Outsiders generally interpreted the spirituals on a literalChoir level, while slaves knew the meaning of the messages hidden within the words and phrases. Through the words, the refrains, the “call and response” method of singing, and the rhythmic sounds produced by dancing feet, slaves could decipher these hidden meanings.

Songs were a part of the slaves’ daily lives and were a survival tactic as well as a means of coded communication. Field slaves sang while they worked so the plantation overseer knew where they were, and could make sure that they were working.

As with the quilt patterns, spirituals were passed on from location to location.

The coming of the railroad train opened up a faster means of transportation for fleeing slaves, and created a whole new spiritual vocabulary. The word “chariot” was replaced by the word ”train” and other phrases relevant to rail transportation. One example is the spiritual, “The Gospel Train’s a Comin”. The Gospel Train quickly became a code name for the Underground Railroad. When slaves heard this song being sung, they knew that either a conductor was among them, or that fleeing slaves were close by, along with an opportunity to escape.

The spiritual, “This Train is Bound for Glory”, was connected to the Underground Railroad, too, with “glory” meaning freedom. Extra caution was required when singing the train songs, however, as they were easier to interpret by outsiders than the traditional spirituals with their biblical references.


The Ballad of the Underground Railroad

By Charles L. Blockson

This song is not a spiritual, but tells the story of the Underground Railroad through music. As the song traces the slaves’ flight to freedom, it refers to the spirituals the slaves used to communicate information on the Underground Railroad to each other. There are references to “Wade in the Water” and “Follow the Drinking Gourd” , with its emphasis on following the North Star.


The Underground Train,
Strange as it seems,
Carried many passengers
And never was seen

It wasn’t made of wood,
It wasn’t made of steel;
A man-made train that
Ran without wheels.

The train was known
By many a name.
But the greatest of all
Was “The Freedom Train”

The Quakers, the Indians,
Gentiles and Jews,
Were some of the people
Who made up the crews.

Free Blacks and Christians
And Atheists, too,
Were the rest of the people
Who made up the crews.

Conductors and agents
Led the way at night,
Guiding the train
By the North Star Light.

The passengers were
The fugitive slaves
Running from slavery
And its evil ways.

Running from the whip
And the overseer,
From the slave block
And the Auctioneer.

They didn’t want their masters
To catch them again,
So men dressed as women
And the women dressed as men.

Follow the Drinking Gourd

Perhaps no song is more closely associated with the Underground Railroad than this one.

To follow the North Star was the message embedded in this spiritual; instructions are included in the song to follow the points of the drinking gourd (the Big Dipper) to the brightest star, which is the North Star.

The Story Behind the Song

A one-legged sailor, known as Peg Leg Joe, worked at various jobs on plantations as he made his way around the South. At each job, he would become friendly with the slaves and teach them the words to the song, Follow the Drinking Gourd. Each spring following Peg Leg Joe’s visit to these plantations, many young men would be missing from those plantations.

Peg Leg Joe’s plantation visits focused on the area north of Mobile, Alabama, around 1859. The escape route travelled north to the headwaters of the Tombigbee River, through the divide, and then down the Tennessee River to the Ohio River. To guide the slaves along the way, the trail was marked with the outline of a human left foot and a round circle in place of the right foot.

The trip from the South to Ohio took most refugees a full year, so they were encouraged to leave in the winter to make it to the Ohio River the following winter. As the Ohio is too fast and too wide to swim across, it was best crossed in winter when it was frozen.

The first verse instructs slaves to leave in the winter—“When the sun comes back” refers to winter and spring when the altitude of the sun at noon is higher each day. Quail, a migratory bird, spends the winter in the South. The “drinking gourd” refers to the Big Dipper, “the old man” means Peg Leg Joe, and “the great big river” refers to the Ohio River.

The second verse told slaves to follow the bank of the Tombigbee River north. They were to look for dead trees marked with the drawings of a left foot and a round mark, denoting a peg leg. In the third verse, the hidden message instructed the slaves to continue north over the hills when they reached the Tombigbee’s headwaters. From there, they were to travel along another river—the Tennessee. There were several Underground Railroad routes that met up on the Tennessee.

Slaves were told the Tennessee joined another river in the song’s last verse. Once they crossed that river, a guide would meet them on the north bank and guide them on the rest of their journey to freedom.


When the Sun comes back
And the first quail calls
Follow the Drinking Gourd,
For the old man is a-waiting for to carry you to freedom
If you follow the Drinking Gourd

The riverbank makes a very good road.
The dead trees will show you the way.
Left foot, peg foot, travelling on,
Follow the Drinking Gourd.

The river ends between two hills
Follow the Drinking Gourd.
There’s another river on the other side
Follow the Drinking Gourd.

When the great big river meets the little river
Follow the Drinking Gourd.
For the old man is a-waiting for to carry to freedom
If you follow the Drinking Gourd.

Darling Nelly Gray

Slaves were bought and sold at the whim of their owners with no regard for family or friendship ties within the slave community. “Darling Nelly Gray” tells the story of two young lovers whose romance ended when Nelly was sold and taken to a plantation far away from that of her young man, Ned.

The two had planned to escape together to Canada and then to Owen Sound. Ned and Nelly lived on plantations close to each other. Due to the plantation owners’ practice of keeping slaves segregated, they met through an intermediary, an old Scottish professor. The professor was to help Ned escape to Canada, with a small amount of money and food. Ned was to find work, make enough money--$200—to send to the professor, who would purchase Nelly’s freedom and send her on to Canada to be with Ned.

However, on the night before the plan went into action, Nelly disappeared. Upon some careful enquiring, Ned discovered a stranger had visited the plantation, leading one empty horse. He looked over the selection of slaves, made Nelly his choice, and paid a substantial amount of money for her purchase. As no one recognized him, it was believed he was from a fair distance away and tracing Nelly’s whereabouts would be impossible. To complicate matters, slaves were known by their owner’s names, not their own, i.e. Jim Thompon’s Joe, So and So’s Maggie and so on. Nelly would have a new name in her new home.

To express his and Ned’s sadness, the professor composed a little verse, and then added a melody. Sung sorrowfully by his glee club, it soon became very popular and he eventually added more lyrics to create a full-blown song. The sheet music was soon for sale on newsstands, and, not long after, was sung, whistled and hummed in every state.

It is believed this little song was a major force in shaping public opinion on the issue of slavery, leading to the election of Abraham Lincoln as President of the United States in 1860.

The Lyrics:

There’s a low green valley on the old Kentucky shore,
There I’ve while many happy hours away.
A-sitting and a-singing by the little cottage door,
Where lived my darling Nelly Gray.

Oh! My poor Nelly Gray, have they taken you away,
And I’ll never see my darling anymore.
I’m a sitting by the river and I’m weeping all the day,
For you’ve gone from the old Kentucky shore.

One night I went to see her but “she’s gone,” the neighbors say,
The white man bound her with his chain,
They have taken her to Georgia for to wear her life away,
As she toils in the cotton and the cane.


Steal Away

This spiritual was sung by Nat Turner as a signal. Nat, a slave from Virginia who organized a slave revolt against slave owners, used this song to alert other slaves to meetings. After the failed revolt and Nat’s death, slaves everywhere were forbidden to speak his name. It was, however, worked into the lyrics of another slave song.


Steal away, steal away!
Steal away to Jesus!
Steal away, steal away home!
I ain’t got long to stay here!

My Lord calls me!
He calls me by the thunder!
The trumpet sounds in my soul!
I ain’t got long to stay here!


My Lord, he calls me!
He calls me by the lightning!
The trumpet sounds it ina my soul!
I ain’t got long to stay here!


Swing Low Sweet Chariot

This hymn was said to be a favourite of Harriet Tubman, the “Moses of her people”. An escaped slave herself, Tubman risked her life to conduct hundreds of other slaves to safety and freedom. At one point in time, a $40,000 reward was offered by a group of slave owners for her capture, dead or alive.

Tubman loved spirituals, and even wrote her own. As part of the Underground Railroad, she was a Conductor, nurse, spy and scout. When guiding slaves, Tubman used spirituals as signals to hiding slaves to indicate whether it was safe to come out of hiding and continue on the journey. She used one song as a warning song to stay hidden, and another to communicate that it was safe to come out of hiding.

The chariot referred to in “Swing Low Sweet Chariot” and other spirituals referred to the carriages and wagons used to transport fleeing slaves in the early 19th century. Later in the century, a faster-moving chariot became available in the form of the railroad train.


Swing low, sweet chariot,
Comin' for to carry me home!

I looked over Jordan and what did I see,
Comin' for to carry me home!
A band of angels comin' after me,
Comin' for to carry me home!


If you get there before I do,
Comin' for to carry me home,
Jess tell my friends that I'm acomin' too,
Comin' for to carry me home.


I'm sometimes up and sometimes down,
Comin' for to carry me home,
But still my soul feels heavenly bound
Comin' for to carry me home!

The Gospel Train's A'Comin'

Slaves sung the spiritual, The Gospel train’s a’comin’, to alert other slaves that a group was preparing to escape and travel north to freedom. “Gospel Train” was code for the Underground Railroad.

Plantation owners would be unaware their slaves were planning to escape; slave songs were part of the day’s routine. A plantation owner would simply hear the religious and Biblical references and assume the slaves were singing for spiritual reasons.


The Gospel train’s a’comin’
I hear it just at hand
I hear the car wheel rumblin’
And rollin’ thro’ the land

Get on board little children
Get on board little children
Get on board little children
There's room for many more

I hear the train a’comin'
She's comin' round the curve
She's loosened all her steam and brakes
And strainin' ev'ry nerve

The fare is cheap and all can go
The rich and poor are there
No second class aboard this train
No difference in the fare

Wade In the Water

Harriet Tubman sang this spiritual as a warning to runaway slaves. To escaping slaves, the song told them to abandon the path and move into the water. By travelling along the water’s edge or across a body of water, the slaves would throw chasing dogs and their keepers off the scent.


Wade in the water,
Wade in the water children.
Wade in the water
God’s gonna trouble the water

Who’s all those children all dressed in Red?
God’s gonna trouble the water.
Must be the ones that Moses led.
God’s gonna trouble the water.


What are those children all dressed in White?
God’s gonna trouble the water.
Must be the ones of the Israelites.
God’s gonna trouble the water.


Who are these children all dressed in Blue?
God’s gonna trouble the water.
Must be the ones that made it through.
God’s gonna trouble the water.



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