The Art of the Spiritual - Part I

Steve and I had great fun planning a presenting a short lecture recital on traditional African-American spirituals a few weeks ago.  Here is a video clip and a little bit of history on the first piece on our program, “Go Down, Moses.”  Enjoy!

The first spiritual to ever appear in print in 1861 (during the first year of the Civil War), this rhythmic, march-like piece tells the story of Moses petitioning to Pharoah of Egypt to free the Israelites from bondage (Burkholder et al., 2006).  The story, as recounted in the book of Exodus states, “And the Lord spoke unto Moses, go unto Pharaoh, and say unto him, thus saith the Lord, Let my people go, that they may serve me” (Exodus 7:16).  As one can imagine, African-American slaves in the American South could identify with this struggle for freedom from bondage and this spiritual likely became a song of hope (Burkholder et al., 2006).  The text reads:

Verse: When Israel was in Egypt’s lan’, Let my people go, Oppress’d so hard they could not stan’, Let my people go.

Chorus: Go down, Moses, ‘Way down in Egypt’s lan’, Tell ole Pharaoh, To let my people go.

Verse: Thus saith the Lord, bold Moses said, Let my people go, If not I’ll smite your first born dead, Let my people go.


A typical African musical feature, the element of call and response (Burkholder et al., 2006) is exhibited in the verses with the recurring line, “Let my people go!”

-- Resources: Burkholder, J. P., Grout, D. J., Palisca, C. V. (2006). A History of Western Music, 7th Edition. W.W. Norton & Company: New York.