Harriet Tubman’s Incomparable World of Music

Steve Houk at the Harriet Tubman Memorial Garden in Cambridge MD (photo by SHH)

Alexandria, VA – We hung out with Harriet Tubman last week.

Well, we hung out with her spirit at least. We’d always seen her name while driving to our place in Bethany, on signs that said “Harriet Tubman’s Underground Railroad.” Last month, we decided to find out her whole story. We immersed ourselves in Tubman’s astounding journey across her homeland of Dorchester County MD, the core of her triumph to freedom. We were blown away learning about why she is so revered as an American heroine who went from being an abused young slave to a courageous rescuer of dozens of enslaved people in the mid-1800s, as well as a scout and spy for the Union Army in the Civil War.

But another wondrous discovery we made amid everything else that day is that music clearly remains a large-scale factor in her incredible foundation of freedom. Music was, and still is, an integral part of her legacy.

For one, over the last century or more, the music world has honored Tubman with moving tributes that continue to resonate across the globe, whether it’s American composer Walter Robinson’s famous multi-covered homage “Harriet Tubman”:

First mate!” she yelled, pointing her hand,

“Make room on board for this young man.”

And she said, “Come on up, I got a lifeline,

Come on up to this train of mine.”

She said her name was Harriet Tubman,

And she drove for the Underground Railroad.

Or the indelible “Harriet Tubman’s Ballad” by folk legend Woody Guthrie:

The sun was shining in the early morning,
When I come to my free state line.
I pinched myself to see if I was dreaming,
I just could not believe my eyes.

I went back home and I got my parents,
I loaded them into a buckboard hack.
We crossed six states and other slaves followed,
Up to Canada we made our tracks.

Harriet Tubman and a song she sang, “Steal Away,” which was composed by a slave. (Photo: SHH)

Those are only a fraction of the countless musical moments that honor the monumental heritage Tubman bestowed upon so many. But it’s not just the songs written about her that are the only presence of music in her legacy. Tubman consistently utilized a large swath of songs herself as part of her instrumental strategy to communicate with slaves in their struggle for freedom.

Tubman would “code” songs containing words that would give directions on how to escape and where to meet, as well as sing tunes to let her passengers know whether it was safe to come out of hiding. Tubman’s favorite song, “Sweet Chariot,” was sung to let slaves know that they would be escaping soon, if a slave heard this song, they would know they had to be ready to escape, as rescuers (“a band of angels”) with the Underground Railroad (“sweet chariot”) are coming south (“swing low”) to take them to freedom in the north (“to carry me home”).

In the spring, they would sing “Follow the Drinking Gourd” to remind the slaves of the clues to find their way north, this song refers to escaping in the spring as the days get longer, to quails which start calling each other in April, and to the “Drinking Gourd” itself, which is a code name for the Big Dipper which points towards the North Star which was often their guide to freedom:

When the Sun comes back
And the first quail calls
Follow the Drinking Gourd.
For the old man is a-waiting for to carry you to freedom
If you follow the Drinking Gourd.

Tubman also used “Wade in the Water” to tell slaves to get into water to avoid being seen. Those are called map songs, where directions are coded into the lyrics. And there’s the song “Steal Away” which communicates that the person singing it themselves is planning to escape.

And the well-known hymn “Go Down Moses,” originally written by slaves around 1800, was also adapted to let people know it is not safe to come out, that there is danger in the way:

Oh go down, Moses,
Way down into Egypt’s land,
Tell old Pharaoh,
Let my people go.
Oh Pharaoh said he would go cross,
Let my people go,
And don’t get lost in the wilderness,
Let my people go.

And there’s the classic tale of how she loudly sang a song, one she composed herself, as she walked past the shelters of her friends and relatives on the night before she ran away from slavery for the first time. Tubman recalled how the master looked back at her as she sang, puzzled by what he heard. And then, she was gone by morning. Her farewell song reads:

“I’m sorry I’m (going) to (leave) you.
Farewell, oh farewell;
But I’ll meet (you) in the mornin’,
Farewell, oh farewell.

“I’ll meet you in the morning’,
I’m boun’ for de promised land,
On the other side of Jordan,
Boun’ for de promised land…”

The Brodess Farm, where Harriet experienced both family and slavery (photo by SHH)

Well, Harriet Tubman made it to the promised land, and it was a stunning revelation for us to find that music so profoundly helped her fulfill her own unprecedented ambitions. And since then, the many tunes that praise her continue to show both how revered she is, and how much music was an influential part of the woman who was so appropriately given the nickname…Moses.

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