Taking Action in Canada
Historical Thinking Concept:
The Role of Songs
Follow the Drinking Gourd
To follow the North Star was the message embedded in this spiritual; instructions are included in the song to follow the points of the drinking gourd (the Big Dipper) to the brightest star, which is the North Star.
The lyrics were instructions on how to get to safety. They were taught by a man known as Peg Leg Joe. The young slaves would use to song to know when it is safe to run, and where it is safe to go.
Identify the Purpose & Significance of Songs in the Underground Railroad:
When Africans first came to this country, they carried with them a rich culture that included, among other things, a tradition of singing. Songs could serve many purposes. They could provide rhythm for repetitive chores, such as working in the fields. Songs could also celebrate important events, helping people remember their history if they did not have a written language. Songs could also express emotions, in the same way that poetry and drama do.
For Africans who wanted to escape slavery, songs had another important purpose as well. They could be used to communicate. Their songs, which are sometimes called spirituals, were passed from one group to another — and along with the songs came the code.
For example, many of these slave songs talked about “going home." If you just heard the song, you might think the people were singing about dying and going to heaven. However, the people who sang were very clever. They were actually singing about going north to Canada and freedom.
In his writing, Frederick Douglass talks about this. He used this song as an example:
I thought I heard them say,
There were lions on the way.
I don't expect to stay
Much longer here.
Run to Jesus — face the danger--
I don’t expect to stay
Much longer here.
Douglass knew that people who heard that song might think that the person who was singing it was thinking about dying and going to a final reward. But, what they were really singing about was escaping slavery — traveling a dangerous route. Douglass knew what other slaves knew: the lions weren’t really lions, but dangers on the road to freedom, and that the singer was probably using the song to alert others that he or she was planning to escape.
Information from: http://pathways.thinkport.org/secrets/music1.cfm
Swing Low, Sweet Chariot
This was one of the songs that Harriet Tubman used to warn slaves that it was either safe to come out, or very dangerous and they should stay hidden. It was one of her favorite songs and symbolized carrying slaves to safety.
The chariot referred to in “Swing Low Sweet Chariot” and other spirituals referred to the carriages and wagons used to transport fleeing slaves in the early 19th century. Later in the century, a faster-moving chariot became available in the form of the railroad train.
Wade in the Water
Harriet Tubman also used slave songs to relay other messages. For example, sometimes she had to leave a group she was leading north to get food or other needed items. She would tell them to hide and wait for her signal. If she came back and sang one song two times, they would know it was safe to come out of hiding.
But if there was danger — slave catchers in the area, for example — she would sing another song, like “Wade in the Water” to tell escaping slaves to get off the trail and into the water to make sure the dogs slave catchers used couldn’t sniff out their trail. People walking through water did not leave a scent trail that dogs could follow. This song would indicate to the group that they had to stay in hiding until Tubman sang the “all clear” song. However, if you didn’t know the signal, you might think that Tubman was singing just to pass the time of day.
A version of the song "The Free Slave"
by American George W. Clark
I'm on my way to Canada
That cold and distant land
The dire effects of slavery
I can no longer stand -
Farewell old master,
Don't come after me.
I'm on my way to Canada
Where coloured men are free.
Historical Depiction of Events
Class Notes: Link to Textbook
Full Documentary on the Underground Railway & Roots of Slavery