May 14, 2013
Go Down Moses: Finding Kinship between the Jewish and African Slave Experience
For my very last academic course before I graduate from Cal State Los Angeles, I decided to take a class on the history of African American music. So far, we have covered various types of genres of music such as gospel, blues, jazz, rock and roll and ragtime. I’ve learned about a range of incredible African American musicians, such as Bessie Smith, Paul Robeson, Mahalia Jackson, Blind Willie Johnson, Jelly Roll Morton, Ma Rainey and Scott Joplin. It has been a great course, which continues to remind me about the power of music, and its profound impact on society and the soul.
It hit me…
Last night while studying for my midterm, I read a question that led me to come across an African American Negro Spiritual called “Go Down Moses.” The song was originally published by the Fisk Jubilee singers in 1872, who were an African-American a cappella ensemble, consisting of students at Fisk University. The first version of the song I had listened to was recorded in New York City on February 7, 1958, by the founding father of jazz, Louis Armstrong, and along with Sy Oliver's Orchestra. The second version I listened to was by Paul Robeson, a famous African American civil rights activist, actor, athlete and musician. Right as Louis Armstrong started to sing, it hit me, that this was the same “Go Down Moses” that I have always sang at every Passover seder I’ve ever been to. It is my absolute favorite song to sing during Pesach. I believe it is one of the most popular of the Pesach songs that are sung at Seders around the United States.
First part to “Go Down Moses”
When Israel was in Egypt's land: Let my people go,
Significance and parallels
“Go Down Moses” was a popular slave song, which became the anthem of the anti-slavery movement. It was sung throughout the South by slaves while they worked, and during their occasional times of rest and prayer. The song is also said to have been sung by abolitionists to signal escape or rebellion.
This song began the kinship between the Jewish slavery Experience and the African Slave experience, as this song was written communally and sung by slaves in the South who felt a kinship between their plight and that of the Jewish Slaves in Egypt.
In the song, "Israel" represents the African-American slaves while "Egypt" and "Pharaoh" represent the slave master. In the context of American slavery, this ancient sense of "down" converged with the concept of "down the river" (the Mississippi), where slaves' conditions were notoriously worse, a situation which left the idiom "sell [someone] down the river.”
"I've learned that my people are not the only ones oppressed... I have sung my songs all over the world and everywhere found that some common bond makes the people of all lands take to Negro songs as their own." - Paul Robeson, The Whole World In His Hands
The passage towards freedom that led the Israelites into the land of Israel, has been associated to the Underground Railroad, which was a network of secret routes and safe houses used by 19th-century black slaves in the United States to escape to free states and Canada.
Escaped slave Harriet Tubman, was the “conductor” of the Underground Railroad. She was also known as “Black Moses,” and often used the spiritual “Go Down Moses,” to convey directions in code as she returned repeatedly to the South to set captives free. Like many people know, Harriet Tubman was an African-American abolitionist, humanitarian, and Union spy during the American Civil War. Tubman escaped and subsequently made more than nineteen missions to rescue more than 300 slaves.
Music is my saving grace
Like how Moses and Harriet Tubman were a powerful force in helping slaves move through their passage towards freedom, music has always been an incredibly powerful force in helping me to move along in my own personal journey towards internal freedom.
In future seders…
As I read about the history of the song, I began to wonder why the origins of the song have never been mentioned at any of the different Seders I’ve ever participated in. For now on, when we sing Go Down Moses at Passover, I’m going to make sure to mention its rich history, symbolism, and the parallels between the Jewish and African Slave experience.
As a Jew, writer, community organizer, social activist, and someone filled with curiosity, I think that it’s important to find connections and create bridges between different communities. This curiosity provides an opportunity to open our hearts and minds, and discover our own inner peace. We get the chance to explore and celebrate our common ground, along with that which makes us different and unique. One of societies biggest hurdles to establishing this important bridge building, is the attitude of indifference towards finding connection outside of what you're used to.
Although I unfortunately did not get the chance to be with my mom, I still had a wonderful mother’s day experience. For my history class, I was assigned the opportunity to go and hear music at a gospel church, and write about my time there. I went to Grace United Methodist Church in Los Angeles, and it was an incredibly beautiful service, where generations of mothers were honored and celebrated. We sang and praised all the mothers in their sacred space. It was clear to me how the power of singing gospel music can uplift you, and help you to keep putting one foot in front of the next; maybe even get you to dance, and ultimately set you free.
"You're never alone if you’re blanketed by music. It slowly leaks into every nook and cranny, and protects you from the loneliness of silence." - My mother, Erica Mandelbaum
Click links to hear music