Saturday, July 25, 2015

Remnants of the Past: Songs of the Slaves

I have always been fascinated by the Civil War: what caused it, why were the differences in philosophies so great, so important, that they literally forced brother to fight against brother. The greatest emphasis, of course, was always on the issue of slavery and the rights, or non-rights, of people of color to be free.

I began my historical novel for kids, The Freedom Thief, in 2008, and with every intention of the focus of the story being on the Underground Railroad. But between 2008 and when the novel was released in 2015, it had changed a great deal. I think that happens to a lot of writers...what starts out as one story ends up being another one entirely.

Nevertheless, when my husband and I took our historic barge trip...yes, on a real barge...down the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers, for research on Thief, my ideas about the story focusing on the Underground Railroad were still in place.

Was the Underground Railroad a real railroad? Well, of course, it wasn't. There are several theories as to why the escape routes of fleeing slaves came to be called that, but the one most historians use is this: Tice Davis was an escaping slave, fleeing from a plantation in Kentucky. Slave hunters were hot on his heels. When he came to the Ohio River, he dove in and managed to swim across. This was quite a feat, as the Ohio has never been known to be quiet enough for people to swim in. Once on the other side, Tice ran into the woods, and vanished. He was never seen again. When the slave hunters reached the other side of the Ohio, there was no indication of Tice ever having been there, or gone into the woods. No footprints in the sand coming out of the river. Not a single broken tree branch, not a single stepped upon weed. The forest was pristine. It was as though no one had ever been there. One of the slave hunters was heard to say, "It's as if he disappeared into some underground railroad."

When the slave hunters returned home and told their tale, the term "underground railroad" caught on. From that day forward, the Quakers and Abolitionists who helped escaping slaves used that name for their secret network.

An important part of the Underground Railroad was the songs the slaves sang. Supposedly hymns, each one carried an important message that helped the slaves in planning their escapes. Perhaps the most famous of these is Follow the Drinking Gourd. This refers to the Big Dipper and its gourd-like shape. When the sun comes back, and the first quail calls, follow the drinking gourd. This sentence tells the slaves to begin their journey around the Winter Solstice, and to follow the drinking gourd. The "pointer" star on this constellation points almost directly north. Winter was the best time for escape, as most slaves needed to cross the Ohio River, and in the winter time, the river froze over, so escaping across the ice was much easier than trying to swim across, or even trying to steal a boat and row across.

The second part of the song was: The river bank makes a mighty fine road. Dead trees show you the way. And it's left foot, peg foot, traveling on. "Dead trees show you the way" because moss on a dead tree only grows on the north side. The river bank referred to the Tombigbee River, which began in Tennessee and flowed all the way to the Gulf of Mexico. Dead trees were littered all along those banks, and on several of them, slaves had made left foot prints and peg foot prints to show others this was the right river. Following it to the north would lead them to the Ohio River.

Another important song that played a part in the Underground Railroad was Go Down Moses. The African American community has  always known the story of Moses, and in the days of slavery felt that his story echoed their own. This was a song that the slaves could sing in front of their masters, and only they would know the truth of it. In the lyrics: Go down Moses, go down Moses, Way down in Egypt's Land, and tell old Pharaoh to let my people go. Let my people go, let my people go to the Promised land, there were code words for the slaves.

Moses was the Underground Railroad conductor who would help them get to freedom, and often this was either Harriet Tubman or John Brown. Egypt's Land referred to slavery and bondage, and the Pharaoh was the slave owner. The Promised Land was, of course, wherever freedom lay.

Steal away, steal away, steal away to Jesus. Steal away, steal away steal away home, 'cause I ain't got long to stay here, was another Sunday hymn that meant considerably more than what the slave owners thought. It meant that the person or persons singing it were planning an escape, and soon. It meant that plans had already been made. Sometimes it meant that others in the group could join in the escape, and sometimes it meant the time was not yet right and those not already in the plan should wait until it was safer. How the slaves knew exactly which of these was right, no one except the slaves themselves ever seemed to know.

This has been a long post, and I hope not too boring. Next month I'll tell you about some of the safe houses we visited on that barge trip, and some of the ways in which slaves were transported from one safe place to another. I spent a little time in some of those 'modes' of travel, and all I can say is, I'm sure glad I didn't have to be in any one for very long!

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