(If you do not see the music icon/link at the bottom of this post, please click on the June 21, 2020 title/link above.)
For this week I was thinking about the words of The Great Commission in the lectionary a few weeks ago—and also another reading from Matthew coming up next week (in which it is said that those who are hospitable to disciples will receive a reward—“and he that receiveth a righteous man in the name of a righteous man shall receive a righteous man’s reward”). I was also thinking of some of the stories of unrest in the news the last few weeks—and the many reactions to the tragic death of George Floyd in Minneapolis and then also to the tragic death of Rayshard Brooks in Atlanta. And this past Friday, we also celebrated Juneteenth, which commemorates the day June 19 in 1865 in Texas when the last enslaved Americans were finally freed (two and a half years after the Emancipation Proclamation went into effect).
I wasn’t planning on relating a discourse about emancipation (nor do I feel particularly qualified as a historian) in a message about a piece of organ music, but in looking up some information about a hymn the other day, I came across something I personally found helpful to think about that I didn’t know before: the spiritual “Go Down, Moses,” was a song sung among the Contrabands at Fort Monroe during the Civil War as a kind of rallying anthem.
Fort Monroe over in Hampton is a place that I’m very familiar with because my dad has worked for many years advocating for the protection and preservation of this place as a historic site. Fort Monroe includes the area surrounding the moated fortress, and the whole site has been designated a National Historic Landmark since 1960. The fortress was, as many of us know, built on Old Point Comfort, the southern tip of the Virginia Peninsula—the site where, in August 1619, the Dutch ship, The White Lion, appeared off the coast carrying the first Africans to ever come ashore in British-occupied North America. This same place, many historians like to remark upon for another reason: it also served as a kind of bookend to our country’s long and painful period of slavery—as an early bastion of freedom and hope for refugees escaping slavery during the Civil War.
In the earliest weeks of the war, Fort Monroe began to steadily attract self-emancipating escapees from slavery, and the story of the first three African Americans to reach Fort Monroe is what historian Edward Ayers (President Emeritus, University of Richmond) once called “the greatest moment in American history.”
Frank Baker, Shepard Mallory, and James Townsend forced what Henry Louis Gates Jr. says was “the beginning of the end of slavery.” Like many other slaves at the time, these three men had been compelled to build an artillery emplacement for the Confederacy across the harbor from Fort Monroe, and by slipping away across the river and taking their chances on gaining sanctuary at the fort, Gates wrote that they “unofficially ignited” the self-emancipation movement that eventually involved a half-million escapees and transformed the Civil War into a struggle for freedom. Because the fort’s commander justified giving them sanctuary by calling them war contraband, they came to be called “Contrabands.”
What I didn’t expect when I sat down to write up a note about the spiritual “Go Down, Moses” was that I would find out that there was a direct connection to this place that I’ve thought about a lot and visited a lot when I was growing up. I also found out that the first recorded sheet music version of this song was also published during the war—by a New York City hymn publisher and piano manufacturer named Horace Waters. This printing came out in 1862 with the title “Oh! Let My People Go: The Song of the Contrabands” and, underneath the title, a note from Fort Monroe’s chaplain explained that “this Song, originated among the ‘Contrabands,’ and was first heard sung by them on their arrival at Fortress Monroe…”
The words and melody in this first printed version are a little different than what appears for “Go Down, Moses” in most hymnals today. (Unfortunately, of course, original versions of many of our best-loved spirituals are quite hard to trace.) “Go Down, Moses” is thought to have been a pre-Civil War code song for slaves escaping to free places in the North, but the first who and where and when aren’t exactly certain. In her biography, Harriet Tubman is quoted as saying that “Go Down, Moses” was one of two code songs she used with persons fleeing enslavement in Maryland.
Anyway, I apologize for taking a little longer than usual to get to the actual music selection for the week. Since “Go Down, Moses” is so clearly important to the history of emancipation, though, I thought this note about it makes a lot of sense to offer along with my recording of Calvin Taylor’s nice organ arrangement of the song. Oh, one other note, this is the piece that I originally included in a message back in March (if you’d like to look back on the website to see what I wrote about Calvin Taylor before). Thanks very much for listening! — Danny