The Origins and History of Spirituals

by Gabriela Schneider

Many of the songs performed in Choir Boy come from the tradition of African American spirituals. This tradition goes back to the first Africans to be enslaved in America, who created songs to express the hardships of slavery and their longing for freedom and home. Many spirituals combine lyrics about Christian themes with musical elements typical of West and Central Africa, making these songs one of the few ways in which slaves could preserve a small part of their native culture. Music was a common element for Africans from many disparate tribes as they faced new circumstances of terrible suffering and gradually forged a communal identity as African Americans. As they were passed down over the generations, many spirituals were adapted to new circumstances and became important sources of inspiration and expressions of protest in the 20th century, especially during the Civil Rights movement.

Harriet Tubman (far left) with her family

Did spirituals guide slaves to freedom?

In the play, Mr. Pendleton assigns his students to present a challenge to any widely accepted theory. Pharus chooses to dispute the popular belief that the lyrics of many spirituals contain coded information about routes and tactics used by African Americans escaping from slavery.

Songs such as Go Down Moses and Wade in the Water are traditionally associated with the Underground Railroad, the secret network of abolitionists who worked to help slaves escape in the years leading up to the Civil War. Because of the nature of oral tradition, it is impossible in many cases to find conclusive proof of what the secret meanings were or how widely such songs were used. However, there is some evidence from primary sources that many songs did have double meanings and that some were used as signals.

For example, the famous abolitionist Frederick Douglass explained in his autobiography that for him and those he knew while he was enslaved, the hope of reaching heaven or traveling to the Biblical land of Canaan also symbolized the hope of escaping to the north. Similarly, Sarah H. Bradford’s 1869 biography of Underground Railroad conductor Harriet Tubman describes how Tubman sang, “I’ll meet you in the morning/I’m bound for the promised land” to warn other slaves that she was going to make an escape attempt. In cases like these, each song could mean different things to different people; while the subtext contained messages of protest and sometimes even rebellion, on the surface the lyrics were innocuous enough to avoid attracting the attention of the white masters.

The claim that some spirituals were “map songs” that could be used to teach specific escape routes is more difficult to support, although it has never been entirely disproven either. The most famous example of this type of song is Follow the Drinking Gourd. The title refers to the constellation also known as the Big Dipper, which can be used to find the North Star, Polaris, and the lyrics describe landmarks such as rivers and mountains that are said to mark a path from Mobile, Alabama to the Ohio River. However, Underground Railroad guides, known as “conductors,” had to change their routes frequently to avoid capture, and the specific route described in the lyrics would only have been useful to a relatively small number of escapees.

Publications of the Texas Folklore Society, Number VII, Austin, 1928

In fact, the version of the lyrics that is generally known today was written in the 1940s, adapted from a version collected by white folklorists in the early twentieth century, several decades after emancipation. This certainly does not mean that Follow the Drinking Gourd did not exist during slavery, but it has led scholars to assume that the song probably changed significantly over the years before it entered the written historical record. The original version may have served the purpose of maintaining hope and encouraging escape attempts in general rather than passing on the details of one specific, literal path to freedom.

Whether or not spirituals ever helped slaves memorize escape routes or tactics, it is clear that the original composers used symbolism and metaphor to express their longing for literal freedom in this life as well as spiritual freedom in the next. As Pharus argues in Mr. Pendleton’s class, these songs have enduring power as a source of emotional and spiritual strength — but they are also a vibrant testament to the creativity, ingenuity and humanity of the African Americans who lived through slavery.