Songs of Freedom
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Owen Sound's Black History

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Songs of Freedom

The seemingly innocent spirituals, as the slave songs came to be known, were more than simple hymns of endurance and a belief in a better afterlife. As sung by slaves and their descendants, the spirituals allowed the slaves to communicate secret messages and information to each other about the Underground Railroad.

The spirituals and their lyrics were part of a sophisticated system that involved no incriminating evidence for plantation owners or overseers to find. Codes imbedded in the spirituals instructed slaves as to when, how and where to escape. They also included warning signals, such as the message of “Wade in the Water”, informing slaves to travel along the riverbank so the dogs giving chase would be thrown off their scent.

Most slaves could not read or write; in fact, it was against the law to teach slaves to read or write. The spirituals provided a means of verbal, coded communication understood only by those in the Underground Railroad. Outsiders generally interpreted the spirituals on a literal level, while slaves knew the meaning of the messages hidden within the words and phrases. Through the words, the refrains, the “call and response” method of singing, and the rhythmic sounds produced by dancing feet, slaves could decipher these hidden meanings.

Songs were a part of the slaves’ daily lives and were a survival tactic as well as a means of coded communication. Field slaves sang while they worked so the plantation overseer knew where they were, and could make sure that they were working.

As with the quilt patterns, spirituals were passed on from location to location.

The coming of the railroad train opened up a faster means of transportation for fleeing slaves, and created a whole new spiritual vocabulary. The word “chariot” was replaced by the word ”train” and other phrases relevant to rail transportation. One example is the spiritual, “The Gospel Train’s a Comin”. The Gospel Train quickly became a code name for the Underground Railroad. When slaves heard this song being sung, they knew that either a conductor was among them, or that fleeing slaves were close by, along with an opportunity to escape.

The spiritual, “This Train is Bound for Glory”, was connected to the Underground Railroad, too, with “glory” meaning freedom. Extra caution was required when singing the train songs, however, as they were easier to interpret by outsiders than the traditional spirituals with their biblical references.



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