Go Down, Moses

African American spiritual, published 1861

Who was Moses? Who can summarize the story of Moses? The Israelites had been enslaved in Egypt since Joseph's generation. Moses was called to demand that Pharaoh let the Israelites go. When he wouldn't, twelve plagues applied pressure to Egypt. The last plague killed first-born children, which the Israelites were spared by painting the blood of a lamb on their doorways, the origin of Passover. Pharaoh finally set the people of Israel free to return to their own land.

Why did African Americans in the early 1800s identify so much with Moses and the Israelites? They were also enslaved far from their homes.

Hum this tune through. What words would you use to describe the melody, rhythm, and tempo of this song? Mournful, forceful, determined, sad, demanding, etc.

Who did Pharaoh symbolize? White enslavers. What did "Israel" symbolize? Enslaved Blacks. Who might have been Moses-figures for them? Underground railroad conductors, abolitionists.

Some believe "Moses" symbolized Harriet Tubman. What do you think? What did Tubman do that would remind people of Moses?

What do you think slaves pictured happening when they sang the chorus? Do you think their image ever became a reality? If so, when? 1. Some freed slaves joined behind the troops that freed them toward the end of the Civil War (they called this moment of freedom "The Jubilee") ; 2. Some may have been met by Underground Railroad conductors (Moses?) to be escorted to freedom in the North and Canada.

"Go Down, Moses" performed by The Ambassadors Chorale and Ensemble. All rights reserved. © 2004.

This performance features soloists on the verses with other singers joining the chorus and repeated lines, as it was likely performed among slaves. Each member of the chorus is given a chance to sing a solo. 

View the music and lyrics for "Go Down Moses."

Contraband's Song of Freedom


Eastburn, and Eastburn. "Contraband's Song of Freedom." W. R. Smith, Philadelphia, 1865. Notated Music. Retrieved from the Library of Congress, <www.loc.gov/item/ihas.200002300/>.

Although the composer of this well-known spiritual is unknown, it is considered to be the first spiritual to be written down. The text was originally published in a Northern abolitionist newspaper, The National Anti-Slavery Standard, in 1861, as "The Contrabands' Freedom Hymn," though it was composed and sung long before. Reverend Lewis C. Lockwood, a YMCA employee and missionary who was among the first Northerners to have contact with former southern slaves, documented this song and sent the text to the New York Tribune. (These slaves were referred to as "contraband" because during the Civil War the North refused to return them to their owners, claiming them as "contraband of war.") "Let My People Go" appeared as sheet music the following year.

Slaves identified with Israel in bondage; they saw the master class as Pharaoh, the South as Egypt, and their own leaders, like the insurrectionist Nat Turner, as Moses. This hymn may even have been composed to honor Turner's revolt in Virginia in 1831, although there is no evidence of this being the case. The text is based on Exodus, Chapters 3 and 4, which tells of the Israelite captivity in Egypt and how Moses was sent to free them.

Compare this song to:

Other spirituals:

"Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child" (this unit)

"Deep River" (Unit 4).

Other songs of freedom:

"No More Auction Block for Me" (Unit 4)

"Marching Down Freedom Road" (Unit 7).



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