Good Morning POU!
Today’s open thread is dedicated to the spirituals sung by slaves as a code to direct the passengers of The Underground Railroad.
Perhaps the best known use of spirituals in the service of freedom during the slave period was the imbedding of “hidden” or coded messages in song lyrics for the purpose of clandestine (secret) communication on the Underground Railroad. One of the first public revelations by a former slave of this practice of secret communication through spirituals is found in the autobiographical writings of the noted Black abolitionist Frederick Douglass, in which Douglass revealed to his readers that some songs interpreted by outsiders as referring to life after death in Heaven, were actually understood within the enslaved African community as signifying a determination to reach freedom in the North, outside the reach and power of Southern plantation owners.
Steal Away – Mahalia Jackson & Nat King Cole
Two common types of coded spirituals were signal songs and map songs. In a signal song, a singer or group of singers communicated in code that a certain event – such as a planned escape from a plantation – was imminent. In a map song, the lyrics actually contained elements of a map that directed people to significant points of escape along the routes of the Underground Railroad. The most famous map song was “Follow the Drinking Gourd,” which used the metaphor of a drinking gourd to symbolize the constellation of stars known as the Big Dipper, containing the North Star, an important compass guide for individuals and families who needed to be certain that they were continuing to travel in the direction of north as they made their way to freedom.
Eric Bibb – Follow the Drinking Gourd
It is very likely that both signal songs and map songs were utilized in combination with any number of other clandestine communication tools, including the extensive use of symbols sewn onto quilts that assisted prospective “passengers” on the Underground Railroad in rehearsing the specific places that would need to be reached for a successful trip to safety in the North or Canada.
Wade In The Water – Mary Mary
Since the struggle for freedom was such a salient part of daily life experience of enslaved people, it was critical for them to have a safe means of communication with each other, and their songs were an essential tool in this effort.
Swing Low, Sweet Chariot – Etta James