An Unbreakable Spirit: Roll Jordan Roll (Spiritual)
By: Nicola LaGuardia
Music was a really big part of creating a sense of community among African Americans during the slavery era. The book “To Make Our World A New,” by Robin Kelley discusses how black immigrants had very different backgrounds but by the 18th century there was a distinct African American culture. In reference to immigrants’ culture in the United States Kelley states that they tried to hold onto pieces of culture from their countries of origin. They had to adapt their culture to a new setting. Kelley mentions that black culture in America is unique because the influx of Africans was, “early, large, and involuntary (Kelley, 84).” People from different regions that could not communicate due to language barriers could recognize common African threads within music (Kelley, 86). Before they could communicate in any other way they could connect through music. Black immigrants had to endure pain and hardship generation to generation so they were forced to make bonds (Kelley, 85). One of the ways that they did this was through music (Kelley, 85). Music played a key role in cultural building (Kelley, 85).
Music was used as a way to connect and it was also a way to keep moving and carrying on despite the hopeless circumstances slaves lived in day to day. It helped to build community between people with and without common backgrounds (Kelley, 86). It was a place of common ground and shared expression. Not much expression or resistance was allowed so the ways in which this took place had to be conspicuous and creative. We see this in a scene in the movie 12 Years a Slave. The hot sun beats down on the cotton fields of the Deep South. Solomon Northrup, a free black man who was kidnapped and sold into slavery is captured picking cotton alongside other slaves. Suddenly one of the men picking alongside Solomon drops to the ground. He is kicked and prodded in attempt to wake him up but he does not respond (12 Years a Slave). He was literally worked to death. Following this scene there is a ceremony held for the man by the community of slaves on his plantation. During this ceremony the community sings the spiritual song “Roll, Jordan, Roll (12 Years a Slave).” This is the cultural artifact that I have chosen to discuss. This song is, “one of the foundational texts of the spirituals tradition (NPR).”
The song was originally written in the 1700s by an English Methodist preacher named Charles Wesley (Roll Jordan Roll). In the 1800s it was taught to slaves as a way of “Christianizing them,” and making them more obedient. Slaves actually ended up using this song to express their own messages. They, “subvert(ed) a Christian message to express their own needs and send their own messages (Roll Jordan Roll).” This was a common practice among slaves. Rivers in songs that slaves sang were usually allusions to the hope of freedom and escaping. The river in this song could be alluding to the crossing of the Mississippi or the Ohio River on the way to the North and freedom (Roll Jordan Roll).
As previously mentioned the song was written in the 1700s however it took on a new meaning during the slavery era when sung by slaves (Roll Jordan Roll). Slaves lived in horrendous conditions everyday and were treated as less than human. They were in bondage and forced to do backbreaking work daily (Pittman). It was a time of great suffering and despair but slaves came up with ways to keep their spirits from being broken and to resist. Slavery was a time of bearing the unbearable for African Americans and one of the ways that African Americans survived this era was through resistance.
This song was cleverly subverted to take on a new meaning and sang as a form of resistance during this era as mentioned above (Roll Jordan Roll). It was not only a song that was sung as a way to express a hope of freedom but with the movie, 12 Years a Slave, it is also used in another way as a form of resistance (Roll Jordan Roll). Masters attempted to dehumanize slaves but slaves came up with ways to humanize each other (Pittman). Within the film the song was sung at a ceremony for the man who dropped dead while working (12 Years a Slave). This scene was incredibly moving. The song and the ceremony were a way of humanizing this man who had just died, by honoring him with a ceremony (Pittman). The song was sung powerfully with the longing for freedom.
The total institution of slavery made it very hard to resist and African Americans had to come up with creative ways to do this (Pittman). In this movie we observe a very clever way in which resistance was practiced. Slaves resisted in more ways than just revolts (Pittman). The slaves are using one of the very things meant to make them more obedient to resist by letting the song and symbolism take on a new meaning (NPR). The community of slaves comes together to mourn loss and support each other in the pain that they are experiencing. There is also a sense of looking forwarding and still hoping for a better future (Pittman). They were able to sing and dream about freedom without their slaveholders knowing that this was what they were doing (Pittman). This song was very powerful in its expression because in the midst of loss and cruel suffering the community of slaves gathers together to give this man a ceremony and in a sense, humanize him (Pittman).
The scene that this song was sung in was extremely powerful to me. It was a scene of deep sadness and grief, but also of resistance and great strength. The community lost someone due to the cruel system of slavery that they are trapped in. However they are still resisting their circumstances by holding a ceremony for this individual and singing this song. In this scene they are showing that their master and slavery as a system could not break their spirit (Pittman).
I connect with this cultural product because I also like to express myself through music. Obviously I am not in the same circumstances that these slaves were in but I do understand self and communal expression through music. I have a lot more options to express myself than this community of slaves but I feel that one of the ways that I can best express my thoughts, feelings, and desires is though dance. There are certain things and feelings that cannot necessarily be communicated and expressed effectively simply in words. Sometimes these things can better be communicated through musical forms in certain circumstances. When I feel like I am misunderstood or unable to communicate myself effectively I love to dance because it is a creative form of expression. The combination of music and movement is therapeutic and there is a feeling that you get in your soul that you can continue to carry on. It has a reviving quality. Although I am not constrained to certain forms in which I can resist hardship or express my thoughts and feelings I still feel that dance and music are some of the most effective ways that I can express myself. It isn’t that I would get in trouble for expressing myself in certain ways like slaves would like in the slavery era. I understand the profound and deep connection that you can feel with those participating in the same form of expression with you. Even if you do not have a similar background with someone that you are dancing with there is still a connection formed. Dance and music can be a common ground and community building form of expression. I understand the power of this art form and can see how song would be a form of expression for slaves. They were able to come together as a grieving community in the singing of the song, “Roll Jordan Roll,” and to hope for a better future and freedom. They didn’t allow their spirits to be broken.
Roll Jordan Roll
By: Charles Wesley
Went down to the river Jordan,
where John baptized three.
Well I woke the devil in hell
sayin John ain’t baptize me
Roll, Jordan, roll
Roll, Jordan, roll
My soul arise in heaven, Lord
for the year when Jordan roll
Well some say John was a baptist
some say John was a Jew
But I say John was a preacher of God
and my bible says so too.
“’12 Years A Slave’ Is This Year’s Best Film About Music.” NPR. NPR. Web.
13 Nov. 2015.
12 Years a Slave. Dir. Steve McQueen. 20th Century Fox, 2014. Film.
Kelley, Robin D. G. To Make Our World Anew: A History of African Americans.
Oxford: Oxford UP, 2000. Print.
Pittman, LaShawnDa. “Slavery Era.” AFRAM 101. University of
Washington, Seattle. 1 Nov. 2015. Lecture.
“Roll Jordan Roll: A Community in Song and Sound.” The Black Atlantic RSS.
18 Mar. 2014. Web. 14 Nov. 2015.