Jim Thomas Presents the Secret Messages Found in U.S. Slave Songs (captioned/transcript)

Captioned version available in Amara, Transcript bellow

Elliott: Oh, freedom. Oh, freedom…

Narrator: As part of the Celebrate Stafford 350th anniversary celebration a Motor Coach Tour explored the Trail to Freedom. At Chatham, visitors toured the grounds and the stories that impacted the many Stafford residents of African descent. These included John Washington, whose life was depicted by professional musician and actor Elliott Dash, who also joined performer Jim Thomas for a Concert on the Lawn at Chatham.

Elliott: … in my grave, And go home to my Lord and be free

John: Jim Thomas is a graduate of Fisk University in Tennessee. He was a member of the Fisk Jubilee Singers. Perhaps some of you saw the Fish Jubilee Singers when we brought them here a couple of years ago. Performed at Mary Washington, University of Mary Washington, to a full house. Over 1000 people in attendance. And he had the honor that night of saying a few words about his his alma mater and, but Jim has taken at his, on as one of his life’s missions. The understanding of the music that was sung by slaves and their descendants deep with meaning. Sprinkled with symbolism that mattered a great deal to those slaves. A source of comfort, and joy, and hope over decades and even lifetimes. These songs persisted within a culture that oftentimes white owners had little idea what it was about. And so it is one of my great joys to present to you today, Mr. Jim Thomas.

Jim: Good afternoon. I’d like to just spend a bit [of] time with you on the brilliance of the slaves who created the slave songs, later known as the Spirituals, and talk about that context which is rarely rarely talked about. The first group of slaves arrived in the U.S., here in Virginia, in 1619. In 1619. They were young. A group of 20. They were told, you will work together all day and not talk. Teenagers. Did you hear me? Teenagers. Now, if you were to say that to teenagers today, they would say “OK” and then they would do what?

(laughter from crowd)
A woman: Text

Jim: Now, it is easiest for you to understand the concept of the Spirituals when you understand that the Spirituals
were an early form of texting. They were driven to communicate with each other. What the slave owners didn’t get
right away, thankfully, is that in Africa all information is virtually sung in one of three styles.

The first style you’re very familiar with, caller response.

I say ♪ hellooo ♪ and you say?
♪ audience: hellooo

Jim: Caller response. Then there is the syncopated.

Every time I feel the spirit
moving in my heart
I will pray
Every time I feel the spirit
moving in my heart
I will pray-yy.

So the song begins one beat into the measure. Syncopating. So that’s two styles.

And then the third style, it’s the slow, gradual opening chord,

♪ Nobody knows
the trouble I've seen. ♪

No call, no response. Just a gradual opening chord. Got it? There will be a test later.

(laughter from crowd)

No one leaves the hill without understanding. So those were the three styles sung in Africa to give directions to villiages, to talk about, births, deaths, current happenings, any information you wanted people to know were sung. Now, here on the plantations, the master and mistress duefully went to church. They were heavy believers. Every Sunday they carried with them the carriage driver, the nursemaids, the cooks. They sat in the back, and they watched and listened, and they notice that the master and mistress seemed to be moved by the language of the church. And they decided to test this by taking that language and singing it in the kitchens and in the fields, and they quickly found
that they could use that language and communicate anything under the sun they wanted and go undetected. Thus the creation of the Spirituals. Got it? Oh, there were four folks that didn’t get it.

(laughter from crowd)

You have to understand that principle, that’s important. Somebody had to create them. See, a lot of you have been singing these your entire lives without understanding how they were created. Understand that. Be able to transmit it to the young. They were brilliant in translating how messages were moved on in song from Africa to this culture. And it had to be done by those who watched and listened to the master and mistress at church. So Black Spirituals were born
out of the white church. Interesting. Some people will wish to tackle me, and ask me questions about that later. And that’s fine, that’s fine. There were descriptions of crossing the Atlantic, descriptions of crossing the Atlantic,
that they wanted to pass on to others. They wanted people to know that this was not their native home. That their home was over Jordan. Sometimes called Canaan, sometimes called Heav’n, in the Spirituals. But I’d like for Elliott to help us listen to a description of the Middle Passage. One of the earliest Spirituals.

♪ Elliott: Deep river, my home is over Jordan.
Deep river, Lord, I want to crossover into Canaan.
Deep river, my home over Jordan.
Deep river, Lord, I want to crossover into Canaan.
Oh, don't you want to go to that Gospel-feast?
That Promised Land where all is peace.
Ohhhh, Deep river, Lord, I want to crossover into Canaan

Jim: Thanks

One description of arriving here across the Atlantic. There were several other descriptions that described the crossing. Roll, Jordan, Roll was one, and then,

Oh, wasn't that a wide river, river Jordan, Lord?
Wide river, there's one more river to cross.
Oh, the good old chariot is a passing by, one more river to cross.
It jarred the earth and it shook the sky, one more river to cross.
Oh, wasn't that a wide river, river of Jordan, Lord?
Wide river, there's one more river to cross.


So they learned that they could describe that crossing and pass it down. What were some of the other codes? “Down yonder,” ~”hayle”~, H-E-L-L, hell, sometimes I don’t say it where it sounds as fierce as it’s supposed to,

(laughter from audience)

but that was meaning being sold farther South. “Winter” and “Babylon” were also included. “Winter”, “Babylon”, “hell”, being sold farther South. “Angels”. Now, it past your ear because of the beauty of it when Elliott sang to you earlier about Angels. I’ll remind you. See, I’ve told you there be a test. Now, so if you forget it again, you won’t go. And it’ll be colder tonight.

(loud laughter from audience)

Harriet Tubman had two slave songs attached to her name. At first she was called “Moses”. And so when they would sing, Go Down Moses, that meant that Harriet was nearby to conduct them into freedom. But when an informer, the master was able to give them a little extra piece of fatback or little extra liqu’a, and get one or two people to serve as informers. So, I think when they singing about Moses they talking about Harriet. And they wanted Harriet,… Bad. Put a price on ha’ head. Never got her. The informer was disappeared. Slaves didn’t like the informers. And after the informer was disappeared, they changed Harriet’s name from Moses to Sweet Chariot. Now, you noticed when Elliot sang about Sweet Chariot,

you got to the verse,

“I looked over Jordan and what did I see? a band of…”?

Audience: Angels.
Jim: Angels.

Now, angels appear quite often in slave songs, yes? They were conductors on the Underground Railroad.

“A band of angels coming forth to..”?

Audience: Carry me home.
Jim: Carry me home.

And home either meant North to freedom, or back to Africa. That was the code. I know. I know, it’s stunning to some
and not to others. They also described conditions, like many of them had very bad conditions in slavery where they were beaten and whipped and salt put in the wounds to make it hurt even more.

And they would sing,

I’ve been butte and I’ve been in scorn.
A condition. Or,

Soon I will be done with the troubles of the world

Sometimes I feel like a motherless child

Those descriptions included in the body of a song, which they could sing all day. It was OK to sing. They’ happy. They’ singin’. Maybe they’ getting converted.

(laughter from audience)

Sometimes… the slaves… had to describe events that were dangerous for them. A couple of really dangerous events here in Virginia, one was the Nat Turner insurrection that some of you have heard about. Yes, I know there are two or three of you that haven’t heard about them.

(laughter from the audience)

1831. Down.. near.. just beyond Hampton. Now, the slaves, anybody who was associated with Nat Turner would have been taken away and probably hung, or killed, or severely punished. And so if they really appreciated what he had done they couldn’t let anybody know. And there were a number of songs about Nat Turner, and some of them you sing today.

One was,

Were you there 
when they crucified m'lord?

Oh? It’s “m’lord,” Nat Turner. One is, and they called him John,

I wanna be ready, 
I wanna be ready,
I wanna be ready
to walk in Jerusalem just like…

Just like whome?

Audience: John.
Jim: Just like John.

Now, there is a town down South in Virginia whose name is now, the County seat, is Cortland. And have you ever been to Cortland? You’ve heard of it? I know some of you are well read.

(laughter from audience)

You’ve, you’ve heard of Courtland. But in 1831, the name of the County seat was not Cortland. It was Jerusalem. And so there’s also Rock’n Jerusalem. Do you know the,

Oh, Mary. Oh Martha. 
Oh, Mary, ring them bells.
I hear archangels, a rock'n Jerusalem.
Hear archangels are ringing them bells.

They’re talking about Courtland. Well, Jerusalem.

The song Witness,

Can I get a witness for my Lord? 
Who will be a witness for my Lord?
Who will be a witness for my Lord?
My soul'l be a witness for my Lord.

“M’lord”, Nat Turner.

There’s just a whole string of songs that described a very dangerous time, very dangerous event. But nobody got it until after the war. I’m gonna whip on, so.. There were two or three people getting a little chilly.

(clears throat) There were some songs that were celebrating religion. Now, this is a sensitive issue, so don’t ask me questions about it later.

(laughter from audience)

We don’t know whether we were talking about African religions, or whether we were talking about Christianity, but,

Give me the old time religion, 
Give me that old time religion,
Give me that old time religion,
It's good enough for me

You tell me. Which were they talking about?

(clears throat) There is another, however, that makes it clear that these creators were talking about,

In the Lord, in the Lord, 
My soul's been hankered in the Lord,
in the Lord
in the Lord,
My soul's been hankered in the Lord

Now, one that is confusing, because many of the religious denominations have now picked it up and used it at a time when they either sprinkle or they immerse in the water.

Wade in the water, 
Wade in the water children,
Wade in the water,
God's a gonna trouble the water

came at the time of the Underground Railroad. Had nothing to do about baptism.

(quiet chuckles from audience)

It was, if you were being pursued by bloodhounds, run as fast as you can and jump in the water.

(chuckles from the audience)

‘Cause the bloodhounds cannot get your smell if you are in the water. So go wade. So if you hear the dogs bark, think of water (chuckles) and go wade. Interesting. Just about the Underground Railroad, two additional points. One song that created a lot of interest after the war was a song that gave directions, gave times for departing, and when you would arrive where it was a map that told you where the rivers were, and and what to look for at night. Because the Underground Railroad prepared people for that long walk. That walk took a year, at night, from the Deep South to reach the Ohio River.

The song is Follow the Drinking Gourd. And it states,

“When the sun gets high,”
as it is now, few of you still have it in your eyes,

“and the first quail calls,”
and the quail is a bird that winters in the South,

“follow the drinking gourd.”

Now, some of you know, two or three people know, or maybe one more, what a drinking gourd is. A drinking gourd is something that you dip liquor..uh, sorry.

(loud laughter from the audience)

Must be on my mind.

(laughter continues)

Uh..liquid with, and you use it to pour, drinking gourd. And you equate, the slaves could identify with the drinking gourd because they all had them in their cabins. Drinking gourd. And so if they were preparing them to escape they would tell them at night, look up at the sky and find the drinking gourd, the Big Dipper. For at the apex of the Big Dipper was the North Star. And you follow that, and you must say it 60 times in that song, Follow the Drinking Gourd. And it tells you where one River ends, another River starts. Follow the drinking gourd. And they could do that at night. Now, during the day they would hide out in public with their other slaves on different plantations so that they could get food. Many times even the overseers didn’t know the faces of all of the slaves and so they could just work alongside of them, get the food that was brought down from the big house, and they would be fine. They were prepared to go on the Underground Railroad. They didn’t, I mean, some of them did run away because they would just had as much as they could take. But the majority of the folks were prepared to go on the Underground Railroad. The Underground Rail- the organized Underground Railroad lasted for 30 years. 1830 to 1860. That’s a short time when you consider the duration of slavery being, what? From 1619 to 1865, 246 years. That’s a long, long period of time. But the organized Underground Railroad was brief.

(clears throat) They prepared them, one of the ways was to teach them vow songs, one of the vow songs that sounded just so very religious was,

Done made my vow to the Lord, 
and a never will turn back.
I will go and shall go to see
what the end will be.

“Done made my vow.” OK.

I’ll ask Elliott to come over and join me again. One of the things that that they did to celebrate, and they occasionally had celebrations, not when they wanted you to think that the slaves were happy because they weren’t. They were not happy. The only thing they wanted was freedom.

See now we sing, we sing,
“I woke up this morning with my mind, and it stayed on Jesus.”

But you see, the original was,
“I woke up this morning with my mind, and it was stayed on freedom.”

Another that we now sing,
“Give me Jesus, You may have all this world,”

but the original was,
“Give me freedom. Give me freedom,
You can have all this world, But give me freedom.”

So they’ve been made into a lot of different things. One of the things that they they did to celebrate when they heard that some of the folks who had escaped on the Underground Railroad had made it, they would (clears throat) sing several songs to each other and that was the cue that the folks who escaped had made it.

One was, Study War No More.

I ain't gon' study war no more, 
I ain't gon' study war no more,
I ain't gon' study war no more.
I ain't gon' study war no more,
I ain't gon' study war no more,
I ain't gon' study-yy war no more.

One was Down by the Riverside,

Gonna put on my long white robe
down by the riverside,
down by the riverside,
down by the riverside.
Gonna put on my long white robe
down by the riverside,
study-yy war no more.

This next, I’m gonna ask Elliott to help me with. Which is very, very near the end. I’ll slice this because there were two people that had feet shaking.


One is the Battle Hymn of the Republic, which is not a Spiritual but is related to the start of the Civil War. John Brown, who finally gave up his life and sons, over in Harpers Ferry.

(Elliott coughs)

Afterwards, the troops would sit around and there were versions of this, by the way, on both sides, but the one that took over was the Union side.

You’ve heard,

John Brown's body, lies a-room-ditty-ditty,
John Brown's body, da-dada-dada-dada,
John Brown's body, lies a molding in the grave,
his spirit's marching on.

Then it it really evolved into, and that was in 1859 when that started, then Julia Ward Howe heard singing on the Potomac, over in Alexandria, when she had walked over from the Willard Hotel and went back to the Willard Hotel, sat down and wrote these words, “Mine eyes have seen the glory”

♪ Elliott: Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord; 
Both: he's trampling out the vintage where the grapes of wrath are stored;
he hath loosed the fateful lightning of his terrible swift sword;
his truth is marching on.

Both: Glory, glory, hallelujah; Jim: Glory, ah!
Glory, glory, hallelujah; Glory-ah, Glory-ah!

Elliott: Glory, glory, hallelujah
Both: His truth is marching on


Jim: The Great Battle Hymn.

(sighs) And now, the last one that will do together.

(clears throat) Notice together, so you can’t leave.

(laughter from audience)

Together, is Amen. And that was their final celebration. That their kin had made it Into freedom.

Amen, amen, amen,
Everyone: Amen, amen,
Jim: See the baby; Others: Amen
lyin' in the manger; Amen
on Christmas morning; Amen
Amen, amen
See him in the temple; Amen
talking to the elders; Amen
how they marveled at his wisdom; Amen
Amen, amen
See him on the seashore; Amen
preachin' and a healin'; Amen
to the blind and the feeble; Amen
Amen, amen,
Yes, he is m'saviour; Amen
Jesus died to save us,; Amen
and he rose on easter; Amen
Amen, amen,
Hallelujah; Amen
In the Kingdom; Amen
with my saviour; Amen
Amen, a-men!


Jim: Thank you.

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