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“Go down Moses way down in Egypt land Tell old Pharaoh to let My people go…”

Actualizado: 11 dic 2018

By: Sara Carrascal

Spiritual songs, like the one above, arose in the 19th century when the slaves were denied the chance of practicing their traditional African religions. They used to meet in secret to pray for their God together. They had a “call and response” pattern that consisted on the alternation between an individual’s voice and the congregation voice through which individual sorrows and joys were shared by the community.

Spirituals reflect the influence of Christianity on their beliefs of salvation. The songs focus on the journey towards spiritual freedom through faith and express the hope for physical freedom through God’s grace.

Beyond spirituality, however, spirituals were also used as a way of communication between the slaves so the owner wouldn’t understand what they were saying. They talked about escaping and, even specifically, the best routes for escape. For example, abolitionists, like Harriet Tubman, used spirituals to guide the people through the famed Underground Railroad. They allowed slaves to communicate and express their own beliefs, something they were desperately seeking. They are of great importance for understanding slave’s path to freedom.

One of the most famous spirituals is “Go Down Moses”

This song focuses on Moses and his followers, the Israelis, wanting their freedom from the Egyptians. God talks to Moses and tells him to go to the Pharaoh and convince him to free his people. Similar to the slaves in the South, these times were very difficult for the people living in Egypt. Like the slaves, they wanted to be free since they were slaves in a land that wasn’t theirs and they were prohibited from practicing their own beliefs. The tempo, meaning the speed of the song, is a very slow one. Also, the dynamics are very quiet. This is purposeful as it makes the audience, often the slaves in the field, feel the heaviness and difficulty of these moments. This slow tempo creates a feeling of sadness and compassion in the audience, toward the Israel people, but most accurately, towards the slaves. Also, when this soft, quiet melody is accompanied by a lyrics that say, “Oppressed so hard they could not stand” and when it begs “Let My people go”, the audience can feel the pain of these people. The word “oppressed”, alone, is enough to understand what the slaves were going through. But when the song says “Thus spoke the Lord, bold Moses said, Let My people go, “If not I'll smite your firstborns dead” the dynamics change and the song gets louder. When the tempo speeds up and the dynamics get louder, it creates a feeling of hope in the audience. Similar to Moses saying that he will be able to free these people, the slave singers are saying that they are going to be free someday, too.

Another of the most famous spirituals is “Wade in the Water”

This spiritual song focuses on the moment when God divides the sea so the Israelis can walk through, and reach the promised land. When they finally are free from the slavery and oppression they were going through, the Israelis start to have something they had long lost: hope. The tempo for this song is much faster than the tempo for “Go Down Moses”. Also, unlike “Go Down Moses”, the rhythm is constant throughout the entirety of the whole song. In addition, the dynamics are much louder than the last song. Again, this is purposeful, as it gives a feeling of hope for the audience. The audience, once again the slaves in the fields, can feel the relief the people felt when they finally were allowed to go home. When the lyrics say “God’s gonna trouble the water”, the audience can feel how happy the Israelis feel of having God protecting them and always looking after them. Combined with the high pitch and upbeat tempo, the feeling of hope is much more intense.

Both songs were sung during an extremely difficult time for humanity. However, while the first song explains the misery the slaves had to go through, the second one describes what happens after their misery is finally over. Both are based on the belief that God is always present protecting His sons and daughters. He is always there looking after His people, making sure that they are safe. As the songs describe, faith is the best thing people have when life is tough.

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