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Trinity Presbyterian Church Negro Spirituals Initiative Nugget: The Coded Lyrics of Spirituals

Just as they did in Africa, singing was a way for enslaved Africans to communicate and share information with each other.  Once on plantations, they were forbidden to speak with each other, so they communicated through song, in styles they brought with them. Enslaved people were also taken to church by enslavers and they wisely picked up on the fact that their enslavers were moved by Christian theology, so the enslaved decided to use that language to pass messages to each other in their lyrics without the enslavers having a clue what they were really speaking about.  These types of spirituals were called “coded spirituals,” because on the surface the lyrics appeared to be about God, Jesus, everlasting life, and salvation from the struggles of the world, but the coded messages were actually used to share information about freedom and to coordinate escapes on the underground railroad.

Take the lyrics of “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot,” for example. When we sing it in church, you may be thinking the lyrics speak to that heavenly chariot coming down from the sky to take true believers up to God in heaven once they die. You may imagine looking over the Biblical River Jordan for the band of angels coming for you. But to enslaved people, they were speaking of looking over the Ohio or Mississippi Rivers, watching for members of the Underground Railroad, coming to lead them to free states up north or Canada on their very own version of a “sweet chariot.” While spirituals also gave enslaved Africans a way to express messages of hope and shared struggle, many of their songs had double meaning that allowed them to communicate and coordinate right in front of their enslavers, with them none the wiser.  Feel free to take a look at the video links below for more in depth discussions of coded spirituals, and stay tuned for education sessions this fall, interactive singing opportunities this fall and winter, and concerts and more education next spring, as Trinity continues its yearlong focus on the history and power of spirituals.

Coded Spirituals:  https://www.pbs.org/video/underground-railroad-william-still-story-coded-spirituals/
Jim Thomas Presents the Secret Messages Found in U.S. Slave Songs:  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PMbiEdGjLUo
“Swing Low, Sweet Chariot,” sung by Etta James:   https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Thz1zDAytzU

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