Spirituals Still Sound Within Me

Sydney Parker

Steal away, steal away, steal away to Jesus,
Steal away, steal away home,
I ain’t got long to stay here.
My Lord, He calls me,
He calls me by the thunder,
The trumpet sounds within-a my soul,
I ain’t got long to stay here.
Steal away, steal away, steal away to Jesus,
Steal away, steal away home,
I ain’t got long to stay here.
Green trees a-bending,
Po’ sinner stands a-trembling,
The trumpet sounds within-a my soul,
I ain’t got long to stay here.
Steal away, steal away, steal away to Jesus,
Steal away, steal away home,
I ain’t got long to stay here.

Before I began this blog, I knew my cultural artifact was going to be a song. I’ve always had a strong connection with poetry, and I seem to understand a combination of lyrics and rhythms on a new level. I started with the idea that I would write about a hymn, spiritual, or song, and later moved to elaborate on that. I know of plenty of current songs that speak of the trials and tribulations African Americans have been put through, and continue to go through today. I started my search for a song that would resonate with me, and found myself listening to artists Jay Z, Kanye West, or Common. Unfortunately, I didn’t feel the connection I was seeking when I listened to contemporary music. I refined my search to songs from the slave era, and found what I was looking for. The more recognizable hymns, such as Swing Low Sweet Chariot, came to mind, but again, there was no connection for me. Then, I came across Steal Away to Jesus. I read the first three lines of the spiritual, and something clicked in me. I heard my grandmother’s soft, yet strong voice in my head. I hadn’t remembered it until now, but this way a song she used to sing to me as a child. Come to think of it, many of the songs she sang were comprised of similar tones and patterns, and they all could have been slave hymns or spirituals that she had sung to her as a child. I decided then and there that the spiritual, Steal Away to Jesus, would be my cultural artifact.

Steal Away to Jesus is a slave spiritual that was important for a many deal of reasons. Slaves generally sang while at work to pass time, entertain themselves, or to preserve their hope and their identity. However, some songs had hidden meanings, and this particular slave spiritual did contain a code. To me, the spiritual was just a lullaby that my grandmother sang to me. Little did I know, it saved and gave opportunity to many lives during slavery.

During the time of the underground railroad, Steal Away to Jesus was a common calling for the congregation of slaves. As slave codes were present during this time, slaves were not allowed to gather in large groups, and so they must do it in secret, using these songs to indicate a meeting (Pittman). To steal away means to “sneak away from someone or something” (McGraw-Hill). The literal meaning of the song was to go to Jesus, or just to sneak away in general, which became a way of communicating with other slaves to let them know they were meeting to plan a revolt, to plan their escapes using the underground railroad, or to learn to read or write.

It’s nearly impossible to choose one author or composer of slave hymns/spirituals. These songs began near the beginning of the slave trade and was then passed down through multiple generations. No one person wrote any of these songs, as slaves were often illiterate, and they were usually made up while at work. Slave spirituals originated from one person beginning in song, and the rest following the leader. It was easy for people to join in because while the songs held deeper meanings, the choruses were easy to learn as they were repetitive and often had antiphonal responses (christiany.com). As far as inspiration goes, it wasn’t hard to find. These spirituals mostly revolved around God and promised lands. Slaves lived their whole lives holding on to hope, and song is a natural way of coping.

This particular slave spiritual was believed to have originated around the time the underground railroad was prominent, so sometime around 1830s. In 1831, Nat Turner sang Steal Away to Jesus to call his followers for a revolt against their plantation owners, which resulted in 55 whites dead, and the execution of around 200 slaves (Tam). This period of time was extremely significant for African Americans because of the revolutionary steps being taken to fight back against slavery in new ways, like the underground railroad. The railroad wasn’t a literal railroad, rather, it was a system that helped slaves escape from their plantations. They used railroad terms to code their system. The railroad lines were the paths that slaves were to take, the stations were areas to stop along the lines, and conductors were people who were there to help you navigate the railroad and get on to freedom in the north. The most famous conductor is a woman names Harriet Tubman, who “reportedly made nineteen return trips to the South [and] she helped some three hundred slaves escape” (history.com).

The artifact itself is important because it was a form of communication for slaves, but also a beacon of hope. Singing was no longer just a form of expressing and preserving culture, but it was also a way to organize attempts at freedom (Tam). I don’t believe the significance of the spiritual has diminished over time, however, I do believe its changed. During the 19th century, the spiritual was a call to action, but today it’s a reminder of what our ancestors survived, and it makes me proud. When I hear it, I think of all the trials that my people were put through, and then I look at our society today and am astonished that we were able to rebuild our culture the way that we have. When slave masters tried to strip slaves of their identity, they remained rooted in song and worship. When they were forced into illiteracy, they found a way to communicate in code. The idea of it all is impressive.

As mentioned in our class lectures, slaves were stripped of their identities. They were no longer allowed names, families, friends, or a normal way of life. Yet, they found ways to humanize themselves and each other. In the film 12 Years a Slave, Solomon and the other slaves on his plantation hold a ceremony for a man they called their uncle. The ceremony consisted of a burial and song. Both of these signify a tight grasp on spirituality, and my ancestors refusal to let go of something they held so dear. Song and dance and the humanization of each other was a form of cultural resistance that was so important to persevering through these hard times (Pittman). Songs were an expression of Christian faith and belief in the promise of a better life after the brutality on plantations (Tam). Slave masters created this notion that blacks weren’t in fact human, but something entirely different than whites. In order to save each other, and save themselves, people needed to remind themselves or who they were and where they came from.

Now that I understand more about the meaning of this song I thought I knew so well, I find it to be somewhat sad that my grandmother used to sing this to me as a child. This damage has been done to our culture, and it’s irrevocable. In the years between 1997 and the early 2000s, my grandmother was still singing slave songs to her children and grandchildren. Slavery has left a permanent mark on us as a culture, even if some people deny it. These slave spirituals were passed down all the way to my generation, and it’s become important to me that the generation after me can feel a similar feeling when they read or hear these lyrics.

Baskerville, John D. “African-American Migration.” Black Hawk County Present and Past. University of Northern Iowa, 1 Mar. 2001. Web. <http://www.uni.edu/historyofblackhawkcounty/peopimmigrants/African-AmericanMig/HeadingNorth.htm>.

Pittman, LaShawnDa. (2015). “Slavery and Slave Resistance.” [Powerpoint slides]. Lecture.

“Slave Songs Transcend Sorrow.” Christianity. Christianity.com, 2015. Web. 19 Nov. 2015. <http://www.christianity.com/church/church-history/timeline/1601-1700/slave-songs-transcend-sorrow-11630165.html&gt;.

“steal away.” McGraw-Hill Dictionary of American Idioms and Phrasal Verbs. 2002. The McGraw-Hill Companies, Inc. 19 Nov. 2015 http://idioms.thefreedictionary.com/steal+away

Tam, Bob. “Emergence of a Modern Era.” Voices Across Time. Center for American Music, 2006. Web. 18 Nov. 2015.

“Underground Railroad.” History. A E Networks, 2009. Web.

12 Years a Slave. Dir. Steve McQueen. Perf. Chiwetel Ejiofor. 2013. DVD.

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