African American spirituals, usually with a Christian religious theme, were originally monophonic and a cappella and were antecedents of the blues. The terms Negro spiritual, Black spiritual, and African-American spiritual, jubilee, and African-American folk songs are all synonymous. Spirituals sometimes provided comfort and eased the boredom of daily tasks. They were an expression of spiritual devotion and a yearning for freedom from bondage. Sometimes they were a means of releasing pent up emotions and expressing sorrow. Frederick Douglass, a former slave wrote, “I did not, when a slave, fully understand the deep meaning of those rude and apparently incoherent songs. I was, myself, within the circle, so that I could then neither hear nor see as those without might see and hear. They breathed the prayer and complaint of souls overflowing with the bitterest anguish. They depressed my spirits and filled my heart with ineffable sadness…The remark in the olden time was not unfrequently made, that slaves were the most contented and happy laborers in the world, and their dancing and singing were referred to in proof of this alleged fact; but it was a great mistake to suppose them happy because they sometimes made those joyful noises. The songs of the slaves represented their sorrows, rather than their joys. Like tears, they were a relief to aching hearts.”
In song, lyrics about the Exodus were a metaphor for freedom from slavery. Songs like “Steal Away (to Jesus)”, or “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot” raised unexpectedly in a dusty field, or sung softly in the dark of night, signaled that the coast was clear and the time to escape had come. The River Jordan became the Ohio River, or the Mississippi, or another body of water that had to be crossed on the journey to freedom. “Wade in the Water” contained explicit instructions to fugitive slaves on how to avoid capture and the route to take to successfully make their way to freedom. Leaving dry land and taking to the water was a common strategy to throw pursuing bloodhounds off one’s trail. “The Gospel Train”, and “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot” all contained veiled references to the Underground Railroad, and “Follow the Drinking Gourd” contained a coded map to the Underground Railroad. The title itself was an Africanized reference to the Big Dipper, which pointed the way to the North Star and freedom.
Source: African American Spirituals