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Coded Slave Songs

Expressing emotion through songs is a cathartic experience. We have all done it. Think about your teen years when your heart was broken and you listened to that special song endlessly.

Under the bondage of slavery, Black Americans had little freedom of expression; thus, deep emotions, spiritual beliefs and secret communications were expressed through music and coded lyrics in song. Until January 31, 1865, slavery was a way of life for Black Americans; the abolishment of which triggered a Civil War under President Abraham Lincolnís administration. This was a very emotionally charged time in American History.

Historical accounts of this time repeatedly portray slaves in a call and response cadence styled song while working manual labor in the cotton fields. These songs were used as a way to secretly connect and communicate. Sometime these coded songs were used to pass along information about happenings on the plantation and sometimes they were used to facilitate the safe passage of people from the south to the north through the underground railroad network. Many of these songs had religious and biblical references designed to mask the true messages delivered through the song.

These songs are true American Folk songs with roots in spiritual, gospel and blues. Most were passed verbally without written documentation. As such the origins of the song as well as their meaning are clouded. To further complicate tracing the origins of these songs, lyrics were often improvised to fit the situation or message being passed among the slaves. Using the cadence of a call and response style, the slaves would sing the embedded messaged in the call masked by the chorus response. Because the overseers easily ignored the monotonous cadence, lyrics could change to fit the circumstances. These songs often conveyed the emotions of suffering but always with the hope of a better future. Two of the most well know coded slave songs are Wade in the Water and Swing Low, Sweet Chariot

Wade in the Water
Rooted in gospel, this enduring folk song can be traced back to its use as a coded slave song. It is thought to contain escape instructions. Trackers and hounds couldn't follow human scents masked by the water, thus, escape routes would follow and cross streams and rivers. While there is a common set of lyrics sung today by many recording artist, there are many versions of the song with varying words.

Swing Low Sweet Chariot
The long standing interpretation of this African spiritual symbolizes transporting the soul to heaven in the Lord's chariot. A secondary interpretation offers clues to the path of escape proved by the underground railroad. This spiritual was known to be Harriet Tubman's favorite hymn. Her role in the workings of the underground railroad is legendary.

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