Home Worship Planning History of Hymns History of Hymns: 'Go Down, Moses'

History of Hymns: 'Go Down, Moses'

By C. Michael Hawn

"Go Down, Moses"
African American Spiritual
The United Methodist Hymnal, No 448

When Israel was in Egypt’s land,
let my people go;
oppressed so hard they could not stand,
let my people go.
Go down, Moses,
way down in Egypt’s land;
tell old Pharaoh to let my people go!

Exodus chapters 3 through 15 provides a seminal narrative in the experience of Israel – the move from Egyptian bondage to freedom. This refrain of the spiritual focuses primarily on a forceful, passionate command that imbues life and urgency into the biblical account, “Let my people go!” This imperative is an incessant litany that recurs 10 times throughout these chapters: 5:1; 7:16; 8:1; 8:8; 8:20; 8:21; 9:1; 9:13; 9:17; 10:3; 10:4. Where did enslaved Africans learned this story since they were forbidden to learn to read? Did they hear it in the churches of their masters? Those of us in the 21st century may have little difficulty seeing the parallels between the exiled Israelites in Egypt, dating back to the 13th century BCE, and the enslaved Africans, approximately three millennia later, in North America. Would this hermeneutical parallel have been so apparent to the slaveowners who were captive to their economic way of life and their use of the Bible to justify the subjugation and brutal oppression of Africans? Probably not. Sin, especially systemic sin, seems to render us blind to the suffering and humiliation that we inflict upon others.

Probably the slave owners heard a more classic typology of this text in which Christ was presented as the new Moses. Christ redeemed people from the slavery of sin. Passover becomes Calvary where, rather than the blood placed above the doors of the Israelites to avoid the death of their first-born sons, Christ shed his blood on the cross, ultimately rendering us free from death. The Red Sea was not just the place of deliverance from the army of Pharaoh, but deliverance from Satan. Israel’s wilderness journey was a metaphor for the travail of our lives. Death was symbolized by the crossing of the Jordan River and the Land of Canaan, not only the ultimate destination of Israel, but the heavenly destiny of the Christian. (Coffey, n.p.)

If this text were expounded upon in the worship services of the slave owners, the interpretation provided by this typology would probably have been the dominant hermeneutic of the day. The enslaved Africans, perhaps sitting in the balcony of those same services, may have heard another interpretation, however. The relentless scriptural refrain, “Let my people go,” may have struck them with much more immediacy and urgency. “Go Down, Moses” is the distillation of their understanding of this text – a lyrical and forceful sung sermon.

This spiritual was probably well known before its first publication in sheet music form in December 1861 as “The Song of the Contrabands” subtitled “O! Let my people Go.” Rev. L. C. Lockwood, a Virginia chaplain to the escaped slaves at Fort Monroe, Hampton, noted down this song from the fugitive slaves as early as 1853. These fugitives, known as the “contraband of war,” escaped by the thousands to fight with the Union Army. African American scholar Eileen Southern notes that Lockwood was among those who had a “sincere desire to help [the escaped slaves] and, at the same time, considerable curiosity about the recipients of their aid.” (Southern, 206) This spiritual was reported to have been sung “over and over again” at the contraband camp in Washington, D. C. on the eve of the Emancipation Proclamation, January 1, 1863. (Southern, 214)

Sarah Bradford, the biographer of Harriet Tubman (c. 1822-1913) who was often called “Moses,” states in her biography Scenes in the Life of Harriet Tubman (Auburn, NY, 1869) that Tubman used this as one of her code songs for fugitive slaves fleeing Maryland. The biography provides the text as follows:

Moses go down in Egypt,
Till [sic] ole Pharo’ let me go;
Hadn’t been for Adam’s fall,
Shouldn’t hab to died at all . . . (p. 27)

Since Tubman began her underground railroad as early as 1850, it is likely that at least variants of the spiritual predate this by several years if not decades. The music was arranged by Thomas Baker, an English composer, musical producer, and violinist who migrated to New York and is credited with facilitating the publication of the first sheet music of a black spiritual. (Crawford, 413-415) His arrangement was published in New York by Horace Waters [Pub.] in 1861 as a song for chorus and piano.

A PDF of the full original may be viewed at levysheetmusic.mse.jhu.edu/sites/default/files/collection-pdfs/levy-090-022.pdf.

This version, though generally recognizable as the spiritual we know, differs considerably from the version in hymnals today. A note at the conclusion of the 1861 publication indicates that “This song has been sung for about nine years by the Slaves of Virginia. L.C.L. [L. C. Lockwood]”

The first printed version indicates the text of the refrain and first stanza as follows:

Go down, Moses,
Away down in Egypt’s land,
And tell King Pharaoh,
To let my people go!

The Lord by Moses to Pharaoh said:
Let my people go!
If not, I’ll smile your first-born dead,
Then let my people go!

The number and specific poetic content of the stanzas included in hymnals throughout history is quite fluid. Based on the influential Methodist collection Songs of Zion: Supplemental Worship Resources 12 (Nashville, 1981) with 18 stanzas, The United Methodist Hymnal provides 11 stanzas. While the spiritual’s inclusion in Songs of Zion seems to have prompted its addition to other denominational hymnals, both for general and African American use, the range of stanzas appearing in these hymnals is between three and six. Generally, with some textual variations in comparable stanzas, they correspond to the 1861 publication as follows:

Stanzas in the 1861 Publication:

“The Song of the Contrabands”

Stanzas in The UM Hymnal (1989).

( ) indicates stanza in Songs of Zion (1981)

1. (1) When Israel was in Egypt’s land

1. The Lord by Moses to Pharaoh said

2. (2) “Thus saith the Lord,” bold Moses said

2. No more shall they in bondage toil

3. (3) No more shall they in bondage toil

(4) When Israel out of Egypt came

4. We need not always weep and mourn

(5) O, ‘twas a dark and dismal night

3. Haste, Moses, ‘till the sea you’ve crossed

5. Come, Moses, you will not get lost

4. The sea before you shall divide

6. As Israel stood by the water’s side

(6) ‘Twas good old Moses and Aaron too

(7) The Lord told Moses what to do

(8) O come along, Moses, you’ll not get lost

(9) As Israel stood by the water side

5. Fear not King Pharaoh or his host

6. They’ll sink like lead to rise no more

7. (10) When they had reached the other shore

(11) Pharaoh said he would go across

7. The fiery cloud shall lead the way

8. (12) O Moses, the cloud shall cleave the way

(13) You’ll not get lost in the wilderness

8. Jordan shall stand up like a wall

(14) Jordan shall stand up like a wall

9. Your foes shall not before you stand

9. (15) Your foes shall not before you stand

(16) “Twas just about in harvest time

10. O let us all from bondage flee

11. (17) O let us all from bondage flee

11. This world’s a wilderness of woe

10. This world’s a wilderness of woe

(18) We need not always weep and mourn

Hymnologists J. Richard Watson and Carlton R. Young note that the Fisk Jubilee Singers sang a version with no fewer than 25 stanzas in their concerts in the 1870s (Watson, Young, n.p.). An undated solo/piano recording of by famous bass-baritone Paul Robeson (1896-1976) includes only two: herb.ashp.cuny.edu/files/original/go-down-moses---robeson_2d8a373fd8.mp3. Robeson is singing the arrangement by well-known composer H. T. Burleigh (1866-1949) published in 1917 by New York publisher, G. Ricordi & Co., Inc. Just eight years later, the Johnson brothers, James Weldon (1871-1938) and J. Rosamund (1873-1954), author and composer respectively of “Lift every voice and sing” (The UM Hymnal, No. 519) included the same two stanzas only in their own solo recital version in The Book of American Negro Spirituals, Vol. 1 (New York, 1925).

While the spiritual was not included in the important Folk Songs of the American Negro (Nashville, 1907), edited by John Wesley Work, Jr. (c. 1872-1925), interesting speculation about its origins and connection with the Jewish community is found in Chapter VI, “Birth and Growth of Certain Songs with Exposition”:

While this song is a simple chronicle of an event in biblical history, it is just as plainly preaching freedom “in a Bibleistic way.” The stanzas are quite numerous, running up to thirty-six in one edition of folk songs, but doubtless many are spurious. The very best explanation of this song is given in Dunbar’s “Antebellum Sermon,” where an old Negro preacher is interpreting slavery in terms of Egyptian bondage, every now and then throwing out the hint that freedom was coming to the Negro, too. This song, from certain bits of information gathered from a surprising source, is hoary with age. Either the Negroes got this melody from the Hebrews, or the Hebrews got it from the Negroes. The time was probably the age of the Pharaohs. However, it may be, the Hebrews claim it as one of their folk songs, the subject being “Cain and Abel.” (Work, 87-88)

Two aspects of this quotation bear further commentary. First, Dunbar’s “Ante-Bellum Sermon” is connected, even today, with the spiritual. Not only is the text available in a publication of Dunbar’s poetry (Majors and Minors, 1895), the sermon has become a poetic classic in quasi-metered verse and can be heard in a rendition on YouTube where it is connected both with “Go Down, Moses” and “Oh Mary, Don’t You Weep, Don’t You Mourn”: youtube.com/watch?v=ZUoMxchFb9E. Second, the reference to a Hebrew folk song was the result of a second-hand anecdotal encounter and may have been the result of the minor or modal quality of the music rather than an actual link to a Jewish folk song.

Musical arrangements seem to have been influenced by the collection American Negro Songs. John Wesley Work, III (1901-1967) provided a standard, simple harmonization in his comprehensive American Negro Songs: 230 Folk Songs and Spirituals Religious and Secular (New York, 1940, p. 165). This version contains only three stanzas. Only the litany, “Let my people go!” and part of refrain is harmonized, the remainder being in a declamatory unison style indicated in the score to be sung by the “Leader.” Most harmonizations found in current hymnals follow this lead though they tend to provide a modest keyboard accompaniment for the “Leader” parts. The version by then Drew University faculty member William Farley Smith (1941-1997) included in The United Methodist Hymnal tends to be more harmonically complex and straddles the area between congregational song and choral anthem.

African American civil rights leader, theologian, and musician Wyatt Tee Walker (1929-2018) notes the following comments on the spiritual:

The classic illustration of a Spiritual that possessed a double meaning is, of course, “Go Down, Moses.” Perceptive and intuitive spiritual insights of the New World Africans saw instantly the parallel between their circumstance in this alien land and that of the house of Israel in the land of Egypt. The spiritual hymn with its majestic cadences was the expressed hope and desire that God would send a “Moses” into the Egypt land of slavery and command the Pharaohs of the slavocracy to “let [his] people go.” (Walker, 56-57)

References to the Exodus narrative abound in the sermons of Martin Luther King, Jr. (1929-1968), for example, “The Birth of a New Nation” (April 7, 1957), delivered at Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery after King returned from Ghana in which he compares Ghana’s overthrow of colonial oppression with the civil rights struggle in the United States. This theme was no more evident than in his final speech “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop” delivered in Memphis, Tennessee on April 3, 1968:

We've got to stay together and maintain unity. You know, whenever Pharaoh wanted to prolong the period of slavery in Egypt, he had a favorite, favorite formula for doing it. What was that? He kept the slaves fighting among themselves. But whenever the slaves get together, something happens in Pharaoh's court, and he cannot hold the slaves in slavery. When the slaves get together, that's the beginning of getting out of slavery. Now let us maintain unity. (King, americanrhetoric.com/speeches/mlkivebeentothemountaintop.htm)

Since the Exodus still resonates as a primary narrative of African American preaching, can the singing of “Go Down, Moses” ever be far behind?

Just as the Fisk Jubilee Singers’ arrangement of “Go Down, Moses” captured the attention of audiences during the Reconstruction era, renditions by Marian Anderson, or Louis Armstrong, and Paul Robeson continued to speak to early and mid-twentieth century audiences not just because of a “revival” of spirituals, but because of existential message the spiritual carried during the Jim Crow era that lasted legally until 1965. The spiritual has become an icon in literature as evidenced in William Faulkner’s novel Go Down, Moses (New York, 1942), a citation in Margaret Mitchell’s Gone with the Wind (New York, 1936), and as the “Spiritual of Anger” in the oratorio A Child of Our Time (1939-41) by British composer Michael Tippet (1905-1998).

Finally, William B. McClain, citing this spiritual, sounds an existential note for its relevance today:

“Go Down, Moses” remains a standard in the black church as people today continue to suffer under the bondage of the modern-day Pharaohs racism, sexism, classism, and poverty. (McLain, 103)

Sources and Further Reading:

Sarah H. Bradford, Scenes in the Life of Harriet Tubman (Auburn, NY: Dennis Bro’s & Co., 1869). http://www.accessible.com/accessible/docButton?AAWhat=builtPage&AAWhere=B00117942.front.xml&AABeanName=toc3&AANextPage=/printBrowseBuiltPage.jsp.

John Coffey, “‘Let My People Go!’ Hollywood offers a new version of the Exodus story, the West’s most enduring political narrative,” History Today, December 15, 2014. https://www.historytoday.com/john-coffey/let-my-people-go.

Richard Crawford, America’s Musical Life: A History (New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 2001).

Paul Laurence Dunbar, “An Ante-Bellum Sermon,” from Majors and Minors (1895): https://genius.com/Paul-laurence-dunbar-an-ante-bellum-sermon-annotated.

William B. McClain, Come Sunday: The Liturgy of Zion. A Companion to Songs of Zion (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1990).

Eileen Southern, The Music of Black Americans, 2nd Ed. (New York: W. W. Norton & Co., 1983).

Wyatt Tee Walker, “Somebody’s Calling My Name”: Black Sacred Music and Social Change (Valley Forge, PA: Judson Press, 1979).

J. Richard Watson, Carlton R. Young, and Eileen Guenther, "Go down, Moses." The Canterbury Dictionary of Hymnology. Canterbury Press, accessed January 26, 2019, http://www.hymnology.co.uk/g/go-down,-moses.

C. Michael Hawn, D.M.A., F.H.S., is University Distinguished Professor Emeritus of Church Music and Adjunct Professor and Director, Doctor of Pastoral Music Program at Perkins School of Theology at Southern Methodist University.

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