Friday Factoid: “Go Down, Moses”

GoDownMoses–By Brandon Ray

The spiritual “Go Down, Moses” is based on the story from Exodus, wherein God commanded Moses to journey to Egypt and demand that Pharoah release the Israelites from captivity. In a less Biblical context, the Israelites represent the African American slaves, Egypt represents the South, and Pharoah represents a slaveowner. The history of this song is still disputed. In 1861, three slaves (Frank Baker, James Townsend, and Sheppard Mallory) escaped from the Confederate Army and turned themselves into the Union Army at Fort Monroe. Instead of returning the slaves, as was the custom before the war, General Benjamin Butler kept the three men as “contraband of war.” Soon, large communities of escaped slaves who affiliated with the Union army became known as Contrabands. “Go Down, Moses” was first recorded at Fort Monroe (Hampton Roads, VA) before July 1862 by the Contrabands. This version of the song was published as “Oh! Let My People Go: The Song of the Contrabands.” In the publication, it was stated the song originated from Virginia, around 1853. It was later published in Jubilee Songs (1872) by the Jubilee Singers of Fisk University. Harriet Tubman, who some have dubbed the “Moses of her time,” also used this song as a code to help slaves escape Maryland. Tubman began her work in 1850, hence the potential dispute in origin.