During slavery, restrictions were placed on African Americans to maintain their dependency on whites. White masters and overseers used this technique to avoid an overthrow of the plantation caste system. The limited literacy among blacks was thought to pose a problem for communication and black culture. Slaves, however, emphasized the oral tradition of stories and songs to maintain an identity separate from chattel property. The slaves' oral tradition comprised of coded messages cloaked in songs or stories. They were generally thought harmless and were often overlooked by white masters and overseers.
Slave culture reflected the treatment, dreams, and goals of slaves. Many folk songs sung during work or leisure activity (if any existed) observed the daily lives and practices of the slave quarters. One of the most influencing factors on slave cultures was spirituality. Religion often supplied the foundation for coded messages and their deciphering. The presence of religious symbols in coded messages proved a powerful source of resistance. Whites often overlooked the singing of slave spirituals as simply the repetition of church songs heard in white churches. Harriet Tubman, an esteemed and legendary conductor on the Underground Railroad—a grassroots movement to assist blacks in their escape from slavery—was nicknamed Moses because of her frequent trips to slave states to aid in a runaway slave's escape. The biblical Moses led the Hebrew slaves out of Egypt and was described to be favored by God. Tubman's moniker symbolized both resistance and the faith fugitive slaves had in both spirituality and the Underground Railroad conductors. The story of Moses and the freeing of the Hebrew slaves provided a staple in the spiritual and oral traditions of slaves. The land of Egypt appeared frequently in slave songs. "Go Down, Moses," and "Didn't Old Pharaoh Get Lost" are examples of the referenced Exodus story about the struggle for freedom.
"Canaan" and the "River Jordan" made consistent appearances in slave spirituals as well. "Swing Low, Sweet Chariot," "Sweet Canaan's Happy Land," "March Down to Jordan," and "Roll, Jordan, Roll" all refer to these biblical sites. The Jordan River once crossed promised freedom and was parted by the prophet Elijah. In the New Testament, the Jordan River was also the baptismal place of Jesus Christ. "Canaan," also known as the land of milk and honey, is promised to the newly emancipated Hebrews by God. Canaan symbolized a land of promise and freedom, far removed from the horrors and brutalities of slavery. Renowned abolitionist and ex-slave Frederick Douglass described the strength of biblical allusions and spirituals in slave culture. "A keen observer might have detected in our repeated singing of 'O Canaan, Sweet Canaan, I am bound for the land of Canaan' something more than a hope of reaching heaven.' We meant to reach the North and the North was our Canaan" (Douglass, 130).
Slaves used the Bible, Christianity, and its practices of missionary work to assist other slaves who tried to escape. Jim, a fugitive slave, explained how he absconded by lying to his master about his missionary work: "I talked to the niggers before him, in a way to please him. But they could understand me, for I had been doing missionary work among them, and the neighbors' niggers too, but not such missionary work as massa thought I was doing" (Coffin 2004, p. 142). Jim's reference to missionary work had a double meaning. On the surface, the missionary work Jim's master heard him explain was obedience to the masters to avoid trouble. The hidden meaning in Jim's teachings was to be obedient so that one gained the master's trust and leniency. Both factors would grow until an eventual escape was possible.
Though coded messages often used language, many coded messages hid in simple noises. The legendary Underground Railroad used a series of coded names, songs, and sounds to transport fugitive African Americans to free Northern states and, in several cases, the Canadian provinces. Abolitionist Levi Coffin described the signal of a new arrival at his home on the Underground Railroad network as a gentle rap on the door. The knocking "did not whistle, nor make an unnecessary noise" (Coffin 2004, p. 112). Joshua McCarter Simpson, a free African American, wrote a song in which he hailed the British Queen Victoria and her settlements in Canada because of the nonexistence of slavery in that country.
In Simpson's ballad, the allegorical 'personal welcome to Canada' that Queen Victoria gave to slaves reaching that country provided esteemed hope and courage for those making the perilous journey northward. Another slave song, "Get on the Gospel Train," also provided courage for slaves to run, citing room for many people. The song promised that a cheap fare ensured the train was available to everyone, rich or poor, a promise that also alluded to the fact that both blacks and whites provided assistance to fugitive slaves as they traveled along the Underground Railroad.
Though many recorded slave songs encouraged the absconding of slavery, other songs provided directions to slaves who attempted escape. "Follow the Drinking Gourd" provided directions for fugitive African Americans who attempted escape from the deeper Southern states like Alabama, Mississippi, and Georgia. Its creation is shrouded in legend and myth. A white carpenter, Peg Leg Joe, was said to teach slaves the song so that the directions would be secretly embedded in the lyrics. If the slaves followed the song, they had a stronger chance of a successful escape. Certain images described in the song, though common, held a double meaning. The drinking gourd, a dried and carved gourd used as a drinking glass, alluded to the North Star and its constellation, the Big Dipper. Other lyrics that mentioned rivers and hills were both directions and acknowledgements that the fugitive slave is on the right path. One stanza made it clear to slaves that they should look for the place where two rivers—one big, one small—met, which described the place where the Tennessee and Ohio Rivers came together. It is that junction of the two rivers that the nexus of the Underground Railroad was established. Conductors would then assist runaways to the closest safe haven and then their ultimate destination.
Coffin, Levi, and William Still. Fleeing for Freedom: Stories of the Underground Railroad, ed. George and Willene Hendrick. Chicago: Ivan R. Doe, 2004.