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The Spirituals and Our Freedom

Harry T. Burleigh portrait by Clem von Buseck

On June 19th, 1865, Union soldiers, led by Major General Gordon Granger, landed at Galveston, Texas, with news that the war was over and the slaves were now free. General Granger read to the gathered crowd General Order Number 3:

“…in accordance with a Proclamation from the Executive of the United States, all slaves are free. This involves an absolute equality of rights and rights of property between former masters and slaves…”

Soon June 19th was celebrated as the day when freedom was finally extended to all the people in America – and it received the celebratory name “Juneteenth”!

But before this glorious day, Black people toiled in chains in America for more than 200 years. During these dark days, the slaves eventually learned about the love of God from ministers, missionaries – and eventually from other slaves who had come to faith. One of the ways they remained hopeful in the midst of the endless labor was by singing the spirituals – worshipful songs that emerged spontaneously in secret times of prayer and worship.

After emancipation, these songs became a painful reminder to many former slaves. But their beauty and spiritual power could not be contained and soon the children and grandchildren of the slaves started sharing these songs with the world. One man, Harry T. Burleigh, gave his life to making these melodies known. Harry learned these haunting melodies while lighting the gas lamps as a child with his aging grandfather – a former slave who lost most of his sight when he was beaten with 70 lashes for trying to learn to read.

As an adult, Burleigh won a scholarship to the National Conservatory of Music in New York City, where he met the great Czech composer, Antonin Dvorak, and influenced his famous “New World Symphony” by singing the spirituals to him for months and telling the stories of his grandfather’s rise from slavery.

I tell Harry T. Burleigh’s story in a new narrative biography, “Nobody Knows: The Forgotten Story of One of the Most Influential Figures in American Music”. Here is an excerpt on the origins of the powerful Negro Spirituals.

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Lovey brought her son up to love freedom and to love God. By loving God, they believed, freedom would follow—either on Earth or, as the slaves liked to say, “over Jordan.” On cold nights, as the wind howled through the openings between the logs of their small cabin, the two slaves huddled together around the fire to keep warm. Lovey would sing the plantation songs to Hamilton in a rich, soothing voice.

Steal away, steal away, steal away to Jesus

Steal away, steal away home

I ain’t got long to stay here

Their favorite songs were the spirituals—biblical songs of hope and songs of sorrow. They often sang them to each other throughout the night as they prepared for bed. Both Lovey and Hamilton had beautiful voices and the tunes brought warmth to their cold, gray lives. These songs comforted them in their times of grief, and gave them hope to press on even when it seemed there was little to be hopeful for.

Like his mother, Hamilton was an amiable person, but the toil of slavery often drove the joy of life from even the brightest of souls. Along with his brothers and sisters in chains throughout the South, he sang the plantation songs as he worked to sustain his spirits. The rich African legacy of music and rhythm passed naturally and seamlessly from one generation to another. To endure and maintain their dignity and sanity in the face of the dehumanization that was forced upon them, the slaves created their own culture, separate from the world around them. These folk songs were the slaves’ positive answer to their wretched existence. They helped to create some sense of order and purpose from the insanity of slavery.

Some of these tunes were merely entertaining ditties, crafted to bring joy to a nursing mother who knew her child would live a life of toil and labor. They brought comfort to a father whose children were wrenched from his arms and sold to a plantation in some distant state.

The spiritual songs gave them the courage they needed to press on in spite of the hardship and sorrow. They adopted syncopated melodies, handed down from their African ancestors, to help them endure hours of unrewarded labor. As a team of slaves worked a field or cut down timber they sang together in rhythm. A leader with a bellowing voice would sing a phrase:

I know moon-rise.

The others would repeat:

I know moon-rise.

They sang like this from sunup to sundown:

I walk in de moonlight,

I walk in de starlight,

To lay dis body down.

I walk in de graveyard,

I walk thru de graveyard,

To lay dis body down.

I lie in de grave an’ stretch out my arms,

To lay dis body down.

I go to de jedgment in de evenin’ of de day,

When I lay dis body down.

An’ my soul an’ your soul will meet in de day,

When I lay dis body down.

The syncopation of the tune was the anchor of the song, helping them to continue to work despite endless, mind-numbing fatigue. The plantation overseers were always suspicious of a silent darkie, so they wanted to hear them singing. If they were not singing, perhaps they were plotting a rebellion or an escape. If the tired workers grew silent or there was whispering among the group, the overseer would holler from atop his horse, “Sing up. Make some noise, now.”

Over time, southern slaves developed plantation songs that also carried coded messages that were sung right in front of their overseers. Only the slaves knew their meaning. It was through these songs that important information was passed along a system of communication throughout the South. Coded songs conveyed messages about rebellions or escapes through the Underground Railroad.

They were also a way for the slave to “sass the massa” without fear of retribution. The plantation owners and overseers never suspected their smiling chattel who sang such simple songs.

Or at least they assumed they were simple.

There was one final group of haunting melodies, rich with emotion and deeply moving. They were songs of hope and anticipation. Some folks called them the sorrow songs. Eventually they would come to be known as the spirituals.

They were the soul-cry of the black slave longing for freedom. They were born in the fields, among the hoed rows of cotton and tobacco. They sprang to life among the salty wharves of the Atlantic harbor and the Mississippi bayou. These songs rose to heaven above the whine of the sawmill and the roar of the waterfalls that drove them. From the painful cries of the Negro wench, enduring yet another violation by the master, these ballads arose. They issued forth from the sweat and heartache of a lifetime of dehumanizing toil and humiliation.

Often these spiritual songs had their beginnings in the fervent heat of a backwoods religious meeting. Slaves gathered secretly to encourage one another and to cry out to God for freedom. This activity was against the law, and they knew that a severe beating or even death could face them if they were caught. But the joy and peace that they received from heaven in these meetings made it worth the risk they faced here on earth. The atmosphere in the midst of the woods was always charged with emotion. As they mourned their wretched existence, songs would develop spontaneously—psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs. In time, these melodies were memorized and passed along from plantation to plantation.

Like a captive eagle, a man’s spirit cries out under the tethers of oppression. In the same way that a caged bird yearns for freedom, the Negro slaves cried in anguish under their captivity—and the spirituals were born from those cries.

As the lashes came down on their backs, the pleas to God for justice and a homeland of freedom across the Jordan rose from their bellies. The spirituals became a bloodline, bringing a vital flow of hope and faith to the emotional and spiritual heart of the slave. Through these melodies they held on to the hope of survival. By them, a unique and vibrant community formed. They served as a second language that only the slaves understood. Through these songs they expressed in subtle words and melody their pain, loneliness, weariness, and sorrow—but also their hope and determination to live on.

Though the slaves were not allowed to read the Scriptures, they learned Bible stories at the village church, or on the plantation in religious meetings with the white folks. The Sunday morning routine included Sunday school, singing hymns, Bible reading, and the sermon, where the preacher told them to obey the missus and the master.

But the slaves also learned God’s Word from abolitionist preachers from the North—both black and white—who bravely traveled through the southern states. After the “Great Awakening,” some southern whites who had come into the “new light” became Baptists. Much to the annoyance of many southerners, these new evangelicals began teaching the slaves about the way to salvation. Black and white evangelists alike poured out their lives, preaching the gospel to the captives in secret late-night meetings. A favorite analogy from the Scriptures used by these circuit preachers was the plight of the Hebrews of Exodus and God’s handpicked deliverer, Moses. The African slaves identified with this ancient oppressed people. They grew to understand that it was through their faith in the God of the Bible that freedom was given to these slaves of old.

The Old Testament fired their imagination. Had not the people of Israel been enslaved in Egypt? And did not God rescue them, leading them out of bondage and into the Promised Land? Quickly they formed a close kinship with Israel. Would not God do the same for them in their enslavement? Moses became their man too, and figuratively they implored him in song:

Go down Moses—way down in Egypt’s land

Tell old Pharaoh, let my people go

The capacity to funnel the trouble of their daily lives into song was the unique genius of the American slave. They were helped in this creation by their own black preachers who identified with what the congregation had been through since their last meeting. They saw husbands sold away from wives and children from parents. Their women lived under the chains of their master’s lusts and their men at the end of an overseer’s whip. Their environment, with the lash in frequent use, told them they were in no way significant as persons—that they were important only as property. But as the slaves learned of the God of the Bible, they began to see themselves as his children.

“No, no, no!” their black preachers dramatically exhorted them. “You are not slaves. You are the apple of God’s eye, made in his very own image.” They learned that it was through a good and benevolent God, who heard the cry of the Hebrew slaves, that freedom came. They realized that they were not inferior to the white man, just as the Hebrews were not inferior to the Egyptians.

The spirituals attested to this and proclaimed the goodness of this God and his ultimate triumph over evil. They would taste freedom, they believed, across the Jordan River of death—and some sweet day in the here and now. Looking forward to that day of freedom, the slaves sang of the “Deep River,” with its mighty waters flowing into distant horizons. As the embers glowed in the campfire, deep in the heart of the forest, they would sing:

Deep river—my home is over Jordan,

Deep river, Lord, I want to cross over into campground.

For a time, the slaves simply bypassed the New Testament, especially since their white taskmasters used it to justify slavery as an acceptable way of life. But there was something about Jesus hanging there upon the hard, wooden cross that captivated their spirits. Here was a man who was beaten like they were. He was spit upon. He was falsely accused. He was imprisoned for a crime he did not commit. Finally, he was hung on a tree, a method of execution familiar to the slaves. Through all of these indignities, Jesus prayed, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.”

“How was he able to forgive?” they questioned. “What was it that enabled him to love those who were unlovable?” Was he in pain? They were in pain. Did he have to drink the cup of suffering? They had to drink theirs too. Yes, their cross was one with his cross. They came to believe that Jesus died for the sins of all men, of every color. He had to be who he said he was. How else could he have done what he did?

In time, they embraced Jesus as their Savior, and they experienced his peace, his grace, his forgiveness—and remarkably, they found hope for the future. From this relationship they were able to sing:

Sometimes it causes me to tremble, tremble, tremble.

Were you there when they crucified my Lord?

From the cross they felt a mighty emergence of the divine will, breaking down the barriers that separated man from man and man from God. And so, instead of taking the destructive road to violence, many began to hum, then to sing, and sometimes to shout the spirituals—a cry to God for freedom and a declaration of faith in his ability to provide it.

Prayer Points

Pray for reconciliation among the races in America and around the world.

Pray that God would continue to use the spirituals to touch the heart of men and women and lead them to Him.

Pray that Christians would rise up and use the arts – music, writing, media, painting, theater – to speak truth to our culture and shine the light of the Gospel in the world.

Action Points

Decide to use your natural talents – whatever they may be – to be a witness for Jesus in the world.

Find a mission – whether in the U.S. or abroad – where you can share your skills and talents to preach the Gospel and make disciples.

Find a way to teach, train, and mentor younger believers to use their talents and spiritual gifts to make a difference in the world for Christ and the Kingdom of God.

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Listen to Harry Burleigh singing “Go Down Moses” from 1919:

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