“Steal away, steal away, steal away to Jesus.
“Steal away, steal away home.
“I ain’t got long to stay here.”
To the slave owner, the melody was just keeping his slaves happy as they worked.
He paid little attention to the words.
But the slaves, they were getting ready to steal away all right — steal away from the plantation.
They were to start on a dangerous journey on the Underground Railroad, a loose organization of sympathizers who provided hideouts and other help to runaway slaves.
The songs the slaves sang have come to be known as Negro spirituals.
“They come out of the slave experience, songs of perseverance and hope,” said Andrew Granade, associate professor of musicology at the University of Missouri-Kansas City’s conservatory.
It was mainly call-and-response music. One person would sing a line and others would respond with a chorus. Sometimes one person would sing a line and others would add lines.
The songs had no authors, said Pamela Baskin-Watson, a local writer, arranger and pianist.
The music was an outlet for the slaves, Granade said.
“The owners didn’t pay much attention to what the slaves were singing about but saw it helped them work better in the fields,” he said. “But the words expressed the present feeling of oppression and suffering but also reassurance, future redemption, couched in biblical language.
“There was a lot of connection to the people of Israel whom God delivered from bondage.”
Although reading was forbidden for slaves, listening was not, writes Tom Faigin on jsfmusic.com.
“Slaves caught snatches of hymns outside the slave owners’ churches,” he said. “Out of little scraps of biblical texts and bits and pieces of psalms and hymns, hundreds of new and beautifully repetitious songs were fashioned and reworked until they became beautiful folk poetry.”
From 1800 to 1825, slaves were exposed to the religious music of poor whites at camp meetings on the ever-expanding frontier, Faigin said. Presbyterian, Methodist and Baptist evangelist preachers delivered sermons of hope and salvation that coincided with the slaves’ longing for freedom on Earth.
Randye Jones, in an article, “The Gospel Truth About the Negro Spiritual,” wrote: “Over the years, these slaves and their descendants adopted Christianity, the religion of their masters. They reshaped it into a deeply personal way of dealing with the oppression of their enslavement.”
They knew the stories of Moses, the Israelites’ deliverance from bondage, Joshua, Mary, Jesus and the devil, he said. They couldn’t read the Bible, but they memorized the biblical stories they heard and translated them into songs. Granade said slave owners, especially in the early years, encouraged the slaves to adopt Christianity to remove them from their African religious roots.
“But it was a specific kind of Christianity, where those with black skin were lesser than those with white skin,” he said.
Also in Africa, drumming was a means of communication, so owners took drumming away from slaves.
But the slaves soon learned that they could sing and pass along messages the way they had done with drumming.
Some spirituals were work songs, used when a group of slaves had to work together to haul a heavy load.
“Slaves used spirituals to affirm their humanity and to give them hope, faith and courage to go on living when life seemed to be nothing but endless physical toil, punishment and deprivation,” Faigin said.
Many of the Negro spirituals were connected to the Underground Railroad.
“A fugitive could use several ways,” according to the website negrospirituals.com. “First, they had to walk at night, using hand lights and moonlight. When needed, they walked (waded) in the water so that dogs could not smell their tracks.
“Second, they jumped into a ‘chariot’ (any vehicle) where they could hide and ride away. These chariots stopped at some ‘stations,’ ” but the word could mean any place where slaves went to be picked up.
“So Negro spirituals like ‘Wade in the Water,’ ‘The Gospel Train’ and ‘Swing Low, Sweet Chariot’ directly refer to the Underground Railroad.”
Negro spirituals spread across the country as slaves would leave one place and go to another, said Carl G. Harris, professor of music at Hampton University in Virginia. Harris, who did his dissertation on Negro spirituals, said there are thousands of them.
Several attempts have been made to compile them, but no one knows how many there are.
The Jubilee Singers group from Fisk University in Nashville is credited in the early 1870s with being the first choir to bring Negro spirituals to the masses. Their purpose was to raise money for their struggling school. They traveled throughout the United States and in Europe. Most had been slaves, and the story of how they were accepted is amazing, Granade said. Other black colleges followed.
Today many African-American churches sing Negro spirituals only during a black history program, Robinson said. But “those are our songs,” he said, and they have meaning for today. Some traditional African-American churches still sing them, especially those with older members.
“We can relate to the music in today’s context,” he said. “The slaves sang, ‘We’re going to lay down our burdens.’ We have burdens today, even though they may be different.”
He includes Negro spirituals as part of the repertoire of his choirs and teaches their meanings.
“I want the choirs to know the messages and then they are more effective when they sing them and we are able to transfer the meanings to our audience.”
“A lot of young African-Americans don’t know their history,” Baskin-Watson said. “They have not been exposed to it. I don’t think the black church necessarily is the answer. A lot of them are not doing spirituals, and I don’t see anything changing that.”
A lot of African-American churches are more influenced by what is going on in contemporary music, Harris said.
Courses in African-American history are one way to keep knowledge of Negro spirituals alive, he said. Students develop an appreciation for them when they learn of their influence on classical music, jazz, blues and pop music, from both black and other composers.
In some public schools, they are taught as part of American folk music, not Christian music, Granade said.
He agrees that many people today can identify with Negro spirituals.
“They express emotional depth, and that carries throughout time,” he said. “The slaves were looking for redemption, and we still need that today.”
Some songs cross racial barriers because many Protestant hymnals contain Negro spirituals.
Now praise-and-worship songs, with the words displayed on large screens, are more popular than hymns, experts say.
But Robinson said Negro spirituals will not be lost.
“Just about everyone will have a grandma or grandpa who will sing those songs,” he said.