When I ask the question, "How many know the song 'Swing Low, Sweet Chariot?'" at gospel music workshops, all hands usually raise. Most of us are familiar with the song because we sang it in church or school or have heard it sung in movies; most of us love it. But when I follow that question with, "'How many know that the song is a message to slaves about the Underground Railroad?'" I'm lucky if one or two hands go up. That tells me everything I need to know about how important it is not to let the history of gospel music get lost.
For me, much of the beauty and power behind spirituals is in their underlying, coded messages. Slaves not only used their music to endure excruciating hardship, they created a beautiful form of art that helped them triumph over it. It was the glue of their community, a bond that couldn't be broken. From it, they gained strength and sustenance. Through their cleverness, they also managed to give one another tips about escape routes, and in turn, they changed our entire country for the better, not just once, but twice. The beauty of their music astonished and captivated abolitionists. It made emancipation possible and, finally, real. And then, 100 years later, it helped win the struggle for Civil Rights. Make no mistake; like any great art, the music of the slaves is a powerful force for change and enlightenment. I say "is," because it still helps anyone who sings it or listens to it. We owe a great debt to African Americans for giving us such a rich cultural gift.
Let's talk about "Swing Low" for a moment as an example. In particular, let's talk about Harriet Tubman's connection to the song. As many know, Tubman was the spearheader for and backbone of the Underground Railroad, that network of people and place who made escape from slavery possible. Her own back was scarred from many whippings from many masters. Uneducated, partially deaf from a beating, missing her front teeth, and narcoleptic, this amazing woman had the strength and cunning to shepherd thousands of slaves to freedom. And not one of them under her watch was ever caught. Her guile earned her the respected titles of "General Tubman" and "Moses." Her friends called her "Old Chariot." A chariot, to slaves, was any means of transportation that could take them North to freedom. As Robert Darden states in his very good book People Get Ready, when slaves sang:
I looked over Jordan and what did I see,
Coming for to carry me home,
A band of angels coming after me,
Coming for to carry me home
"the 'band of angels' was Tubman or another conductor, leading them to freedom." (95)
The Jordan was also a name for the Ohio River, which slaves crossed to freedom. And the swinging low was a way to describe the rocking motion of a train, the metaphor for escape.
Darden also states that Tubman expressed victories and every major experience through the songs we now know of as spirituals. In addition to "Swing Low," her other "signature" song was "Go Down, Moses," which has the distinction of being the first spiritual pusblished with music in the United States. If you don't know the song, do look up the lyrics or try to get a copy to listen to. (Louis Armstrong does a great version.) It encapsulates the slaves' way of interpreting biblical stories to illuminate their own struggles and determination to be free.
On her deathbed, with two ministers and a friend present, Tubman reportedly conducted her own funeral service and closed it by singing "Swing Low, Sweet Chariot." She died on March 10, 1913, but the profound ramifications of her work in this world still reverberate. About 7 years ago, I lived near Auburn NY, where Tubman spent her last years. I used to drive by her simple home and imagine her sitting on the porch or serving dinner inside to others who so desperately needed sustenance and hope to hang onto. It inspired me. Not everyone can drive by Tubman's home every day the way I used to, but when we next sing "Swing Low, Sweet Chariot," we can think of her and how much she gave to so many. It makes the song that much richer.