• The Civil War: Music

    Enslaved people had almost no control over their own lives. They worked from sunup to sundown, often with little food or proper clothing. They were frequently beaten or mistreated, and their own families could be taken from them.

    Complaining about their situation could land them a whipping. Yet, they found ways to find comfort and express themselves. One of those ways was through music.

     

    Fun Facts

    • The slaves developed a unique form of music that included bits from Africa.
    • This music often retold gospel or Biblical themes. Black slaves especially related to the Israelites who were in bondage in Egypt. Their songs talked about Moses leading the people to freedom.
    • Some of the music contained hidden messages. “Follow the Drinkin’ Gourd”, for example, is about following the North Star to freedom. Other songs talked about leaving on a train. The slaves could sing these songs while working in the field as a way to send messages to other slaves without the overseers’ knowledge.
    • A lot of the songs had a sad sound, but some of them were happy and joyful. Many of them talked about God delivering the people. Many of the songs spoke to the slaves’ simple hopes and dreams. The song “I Got Shoes” is about the wish of having shoes, something most slaves didn’t have. The song also shares the message that all God’s children have worth to Him — a powerful perspective for people who were treated with so little respect by those around them.

     

    Questions and Answers

    Question: Are these songs still sung today?

    Answer: Yes, songs like “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot,” are still sung today, especially in traditional African American congregations. These songs also influenced gospel music, jazz, and even rap and hip-hop.

     

    Learn More

    Watch a jazzed-up version of “Go Down Moses,” sung by the famous jazz singer, Louis Armstrong.

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