Celebrate Black History Month: “Steal Away, Steal Away, Steal Away, Steal Away to Jesus”

I finally broke down and watched Harriet last night. I won’t go into why it took me so long to watch it, that is…complicated, but it happened last night. While I watched the movie, I found myself very moved by the musical choices made. I appreciated that they tried to keep the essence of slave music and used lyrics composed by Harriet Tubman herself in pivotal scenes in the movie, like when she first ran away. I don’t know if I can explain the feeling that some of us with slave ancestry feel when we hear music like that. It's something like a deep sleeping wary beast is awakened somewhere inside. It's like in that moment you feel every single second of oppression yet at the same time the hope and dream of a better future.

Spiritual songs have been said to be the first kind of music that was native to American soil, and like Soul Food, these songs have been passed down for generations and their legacy built upon by other Black Americans and influenced other musical genres such as Jazz. Many of these songs have a very sad tone to them and have often been used as part of funeral rites. When my mother passed away, she indicated that she wanted one of these traditional songs sung at her funeral, a wish we honored. That said, I want to share with you that song (To hear me badly sing it, see below):

“Hush, Somebody’s Calling My Name”

Hush. Hush. Somebody’s calling my name! (r3)
O, my Lord! O, my Lord, what shall I do?
Sounds like Jesus, Jesus is calling my name! (r3)
O, my Lord! O, my Lord, what shall I do?
Hush. Hush. Somebody’s calling my name!

Like many Negro Spirituals, the song was purported to be a coded song that would alert others that someone was attempting to run away to the north. When sung you can hear the singer begging those around them to be quiet so that they can hear. When this song is sung at funerals you can usually hear the bone weary tired spirt that is reaching out yearning to be free. We can speculate that what they were trying to hear was the call to run away either physically or to die, ending their torment. What I however want you to take away from that song and other Negro Spirituals is how often the theme of going somewhere or transformation is used. This signifies that slaves not only didn't give up hope but were still yearning for freedom.

Now I know where your mind may be heading, but before we go to deep down that road, I want to clarify some things.  First off, singing and songs have always been part of the Black experience. During the Middle Passage slaves would use song to communicate with one another to find family, other community members, or to tell what community they came from. Song was an early form of resistance, in which slaves would express both the sorrow from oppression and the joy to come in the next world, as these songs deeply pulled from Christian traditions. Nevertheless, while these songs may have been coded to express slaves' disdain of their oppressed lives, they in some cases served a dual purpose for the Underground Railroad. For example, it is said that the song "Wade in the Water" was code to get in the water to throw the scent of dogs off when they were being chased by Pattyrollers (Slave Patrols). It is a wonderful visual.

While I would love to believe that my ancestors were this crafty, and many of them were, there is a lot of things that, while could be true for some, sound unlikely for most. There is for example a belief that slaves used to braid maps into their hair and made “freedom quilts” to be used for escape. Now, as cool as this story sounds, it seems unlikely that it was a widespread occurrence if it did happen. You have to remember what traveling was like then. Most people did not travel more than a few miles from home. Moreover, in order to create such maps, that would require geographic knowledge that one only may come by if one was able to successfully escape slavery. Another common belief is that slaves also braided routes to escape and the layout of farms in their hair. Braids did have an important meaning in Black slave and African society. Braids in African communities symbolize the connection to tribal and cultural families. Its this connection which is why often slaves’ heads were shaved before the Middle Passage. Additionally, slaves would often braid seeds into the hair of their children to ensure they had a means to supplement the meager rations slaves were given when they were sold away. Furthermore, the Underground Railroad was not as expansive as it has been fictionalized. You must remember Harriet Tubman was spiriting folks away from Maryland to…Pennsylvania where she crossed the Mason Dixon line. To put that in perspective, that’s like driving from San Jose to Fresno. If you found yourself bound for somewhere like say, Georgia, hope for escape became harder. Conditions in the deep south were a lot harsher for slaves which meant for many northern slaves the idea of being sent south was terror inducing. Also, what made Harriet so remarkable was she was a woman and she traveled alone. The number that were able to escape successfully was very small, and most were teenage boys and young men. A lone woman with a medical condition that causes her to pass-out for periods of time was practically unheard of. What was real, was the grape-vine which happened late at night in the slave quarters in which news and information was shared between slaves and sometimes to neighboring plantations. I would like to think those late night conversations may have influenced those next day work songs and perhaps those coded messages were a signal that someone had decided to runaway and to expect interrogation. Yet the idea that there was a massive singing path to freedom for all slaves if they were brave enough to run is not something that I and many scholars in the field of Black American studies can believe.

I don’t like tossing cold water on the ideas that offer us hope when we look back to the past dark legacy of slavery but we as a nation need to be honest about our history. Nevertheless, like those songs, there is hope and beautiful things that came from that pain. These songs were collected and published in the 1860s. Then in the 1870s former slaves that were part of Fisk University formed the Jubilee Singers to raise music for the University. This action brought Negro Spirituals and the Jubilee Singers to wider audiences around the world. It was also the true start to Black entertainment that was created and produced by Black people. 

Now I could rattle on for hours but what I really want you to do is listen and feel the pain in those songs and the hope for the future. Usually I would put in links but there are many iterations out there of these songs and with music I feel its important that you find a version that speaks to you.  This time I challenge you to find them yourselves.

Songs to Look up:

  • “Wade in the Water”
  • “Go Down Moses”
  • “Come By Here”
  • “Swing Low Sweet Chariot”
  • “Hush,Hush, Somebody’s Calling My Name”
  • “Steal Away”

Happy Hunting...

Resources for Educators

Negro Spirituals

Dark Midnight When I Rise The Story of the Jubilee Singers, Who Introduced the World to the Music of, book cover
A Band of Angels A Story Inspired by the Jubilee Singers, book cover