Themes – Songs


Traditional spiritual songs transformed into coded information for freedom seekers and also the songs of the anti-slavery movement. Draft list, more soon.

It was forbidden to teach slaves to read or write but the singing of songs was allowed, as slave-owners thought it kept slaves in better spirits. The seemingly innocent slave songs were more than simple hymns of endurance and a belief in a better after-life. They often allowed slaves to communicate secret messages and information to each other about the Underground Railroad. The songs left no incriminating evidence for the slave-owners to find. Indeed, slave-owners often ridiculed the words sung by the slaves, not realising what the words meant, or that their slaves were singing of their pain and of yearning for freedom. The songs also enabled the slaves to preserve a degree of intellectual freedom  and a sense of superiority, and the melodies and music were filled with images and ideas remembered from their past. Codes within the songs told slaves when, how and where to escape. They also included warnings, for example ‘Wade in the Water’ told them to abandon the paths and take to the rivers or other watercourses to throw chasing dogs off the scent. It is believed that Harriet Tubman, who led hundreds of slaves to freedom, was one of the first to use songs such as ‘Wade in the Water’ to pass on messages and instructions to fugitive slaves.


Ain’t I a Woman
Ballad of the Underground Railroad
Children Go Where I Send Thee
Deep River / Swing Low
Done Wit’ Driver’s Dribblin’
Down by the Riverside The song’s central image is of casting off negativity and aggression, and putting on spiritual garb, at the side of a river before crossing it. It also refers to ascending to heaven after death, using the metaphor of the River Jordan, the final passage before entering the Promised Land – a hidden allusion to escaping slavery, with the river representing the Ohio River.


Down in the River to Pray
Follow The Drinking Gourd
Free At Last
Freedom Is A Constant Struggle
Get On Board
Go Down Moses
Go Tell It On The Mountain
Great Day
Harriet Tubman / Steal Away
Heaven Is Less Than Fair
Keep Your Lamps Trimmed & Burning
Let Us Break Bread Together
No More Auction Block
Now Let Me Fly
Oh Freedom
Oh Mary Don’t You Weep
Old Tar River
One Little Step Towards Freedom
Row De Boat
Run Mary Run
Sinner Please Don’t Let This Harvest Pass
Song of The Free
Swing Low, Sweet Chariot
The Gospel Train’s A’Comin’
Wade In The Water The song relates to both the Old and New Testaments. The verses reflect the Israelites’ escape out of Egypt and the chorus refers to healing: see 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.”

Many Internet sources and popular books claim that songs such as “Wade in the Water” contained explicit instructions to fugitive slaves on how to avoid capture and the route to take to successfully make their way to freedom. An example of this is cited on the website Pathways to Freedom: Maryland & the Underground Railroad.  The website explains how Harriet Tubman used the song “Wade in the Water” to tell escaping slaves to get off the trail and into the water to make sure that the dogs employed by slavers lost their trail.



Smith, Danny with Bill Hampson, The Blood and the Blues, published by Authentic Media, 2009

Click here for details of Songs of the Underground Railroad CDs