Music Was The Secret Language Of The Underground Railroad

Sponsored by Underground on WGNAmerica

Music Was The Secret Language Of The Underground Railroad

Sponsored by Underground on WGN America

In grade school, we all learned about the Underground Railroad and the network of secret paths slaves used to escape to freedom. It remains one of the most fascinating examples of bravery and resistance in American history. And yet, many of us know little about how it actually functioned. How did fugitive slaves know which way to go? How did people communicate across hundreds of miles without the Internet?

Part of the answer lies in music. Since it was illegal to teach slaves to read or write in most southern states, songs coded with secret messages were used to convey information about the route North. Some songs gave directions about when, where, and how to escape while others warned of danger along the way. Harriet Tubman, known by many as “Moses,” used music to communicate with travelers—in fact, she’s a key figure in many songs of the time.

Because there is no written proof of these songs or their secret codes, some scholars are skeptical of their origins. But many others accept them as part of the rich oral tradition of African American folk songs that continue to influence American music today.

Follow The Drinking Gourd

“When the sun comes back and the first quail calls,
Follow the drinking gourd.
The old man is a waiting for to carry you to freedom,
Follow the drinking gourd.”

As one of the best examples of a “map song,” “Follow The Drinking Gourd” contains essential directions for slaves trying to escape. The first line references the beginning of spring (when the days are longer), which was the best time to set out for the long journey North. The second and most famous clue is the drinking gourd, which refers to the Big Dipper constellation. By following the line of the constellation to Polaris (the north star), travelers had a guide in the night sky that pointed them toward freedom.

Wade In The Water

“Wade in the Water. God’s gonna trouble the water.
Who are those children all dressed in Red?
God’s gonna trouble the water.
Must be the ones that Moses led.
God’s gonna trouble the water.”

Legend has it that “Wade In The Water,” which used Biblical imagery to evade suspicion, was used by Harriet Tubman to tell fugitive slaves how to avoid capture. If they thought they were being followed, hiding in the water would conceal them and throw bloodhounds off their scent. “Moses” refers to Tubman herself, who led hundreds from slavery into freedom on the Underground Railroad.

Since the first time its lyrics were published in 1901, “Wade In The Water” has been recorded by many musicians including Mavis Staples, Eva Cassidy, and Bob Dylan. Lyrics from the song also inspired the title of “Trouble The Water,” an award-winning documentary about Hurricane Katrina.

Swing Low, Sweet Chariot

“Swing low, sweet chariot,
Coming for to carry me home,
Swing low, sweet chariot,
Coming for to carry me home.

I looked over Jordan and what did I see
Coming for to carry me home,
A band of angels coming after me,
Coming for to carry me home.

Perhaps one of the most enduring songs of this time period, “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot” is said to be Harriet Tubman’s favorite. If a slave heard this song in the South, they knew they had to prepare for escape. The “band of angels” referred to the conductors of the Underground Railroad (sweet chariot), who would soon come south (swing low), to guide the slave north to freedom (carry me home).

Underground Music Today

While several of these songs remain well-known folk tunes today, others have been largely forgotten over the years. John Legend, executive producer of “Underground” on WGN America, is changing that by re-recording African American folk songs for modern audiences. “Underground” mixes spiritual songs like “Move, Daniel” and “I Got Shoes” with new music by Kanye West and The Weeknd to inspire a sense of resistance.

John Legend recording original music for ‘Underground.’

“All of the music, I felt, had to have a certain rawness,” said Legend. “At any moment, [the characters] could lose their lives.”

As songs of the Underground Railroad continue to influence music today, we are reminded that in some ways the struggles of 1857 aren’t so different from those of 2017.

For more on John Legend and the role of music on “Underground,” check out the video below. And don’t miss the season 2 premiere this Wednesday at 10/9c on WGN America.