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Negro Spirituals

Use this primary source text to explore key historical events.

 Suggested Sequencing


In his 1845 autobiography, Frederick Douglass wrote the following about the songs enslaved men and women sang:

I have sometimes thought that the mere hearing of those songs would do more to impress some minds with the horrible character of slavery, than the reading of whole volumes of philosophy on the subject could do… To those songs I trace my first glimmering conception of the dehumanizing character of slavery… Those songs still follow me, to deepen my hatred of slavery, and quicken my sympathies for my brethren in bonds…

The popularization of these songs—now known as Negro spirituals—began after the Civil War, thanks in large part to the touring of the Fisk Jubilee Singers. Fisk University was established in 1866 in Nashville, Tennessee, to educate freed slaves. The Jubilee Singers were created by Fisk treasurer and music professor George White to earn money for the university. The group began touring in 1871, and their talent not only earned much needed funds for the university but also critical praise and international acclaim. The Fisk Jubilee Singers remain a prestigious a cappella group to this day and continue the tradition of singing Negro spirituals around the world.

Because these songs were sung and not initially written down, variations occur in the lyrics. Biblical imagery, particularly of the enslavement of the Hebrew people in Egypt and the role of Moses in freeing them, figure prominently. Modern artists continue to offer their own versions of these spirituals in the present day.

Sourcing Questions

  1. Where and why were these songs first performed?
  2. How were these songs introduced to a wider audience?

Source A: Wade in the Water

Vocabulary Text
God’s a-going to trouble the water: This line, repeated throughout the song, refers to the New Testament, John 5:4, “For an angel went down at a certain season into the pool, and troubled the water: whosoever then first after the troubling of the water stepped in was made whole of whatsoever disease he had.” Wade in the water
Wade in the water, children,
Wade in the water
God’s a-going to trouble the water
Israelite(n): a member of the enslaved minority in Egypt; in this reference the Israelite is Moses See that host all dressed in white
God’s a-going to trouble the water
The leader looks like the Israelite
God’s a-going to trouble the water
Moses: a prophet in the Old Testament who led the Israelites to freedom out of Egypt See that band all dressed in red
God’s a-going to trouble the water
Looks like the band that Mosesed
God’s a-going to trouble the water
Look over yonder, what do you see?
God’s a-going to trouble the water
The Holy Ghost a-coming on me
God’s a-going to trouble the water
Jordan: According to the Bible, the river which the Israelites crossed to enter the Promised Land If you don’t believe I’ve been redeemed
God’s a-going to trouble the water
Just follow me down to the Jordan’s stream
God’s a-going to trouble the water

Source B: There Is a Balm in Gilead

Vocabulary Text
balm in Gilead: a medicine referenced in the Old Testament; used figuratively as a universal cure There is a balm in Gilead
To make the wounded whole
There is a balm in Gilead
To heal the sin-sick soul
Sometimes I feel discouraged
And think my work’s in vain
But then the Holy Spirit
Revives my soul again
Don’t ever feel discouraged
For Jesus is your friend
And if you lack of knowledge
He’ll ne’er refuse to lend
Peter: the first leader of the early Christian Church; one of the 12 apostles of Jesus

Paul: traveling teacher of the early Christian gospels throughout the Roman Empire c. 30–50 CE
If you cannot preach like Peter
If you cannot pray like Paul
You can tell the love of Jesus
And say, “He died for all”.

Source C: Go Down Moses

Vocabulary Text
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 land;
Tell ol’ Pharaoh,
Let my people go
smite(v): to strike forcefully Thus spoke the Lord, bold Moses said,
Let my people go
If not I’ll smite your first-born dead
Let my people go
No more shall they in bondage toil,
Let my people go
Let them come out with Egypt’s spoil
Let my people go

Comprehension Questions

  1. What is the overt message of this song?
  2. What is the specific “balm of Gilead” that this song references?
  3. How did this song provide hope to those who sang it?

Historical Reasoning Questions

I have often been utterly astonished, since I came to the north, to find persons who could speak of the singing, among slaves, as evidence of their contentment and happiness. It is impossible to conceive of a greater mistake. Slaves sing most when they are most unhappy. The songs of the slave represent the sorrows of his heart; and he is relieved by them, only as an aching heart is relieved by its tears….

— Frederick Douglass, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, 1845

  1. What purpose did these songs serve for those who sang them? Give specific examples from the lyrics to support your answer.
  2. How were these songs misconstrued by some who heard them? Why might they have done this?
  3. These songs are rich in religious imagery. What conclusions can you draw from this?
  4. Listen to the recording of one or more of the songs featured in this exercise. Which is more affecting, the music or the lyrics?

Source A: “Wade in the Water”

Source B: “There Is a Balm in Gilead”

Source C: “Go Down Moses”

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