Roll, Jordan, Roll

Traditional, 1800s

“Roll, Jordan, Roll” was written down by abolitionist Lucy McKim Garrison. Why do you think abolitionists wrote down and published slave songs?

“Roll, Jordan, Roll” makes use of metaphors that are found in many spirituals. What do you think the river Jordan and rising to heaven are metaphors for?

Compare and contrast “Roll, Jordan, Roll” to other spirituals, such as “Deep River,” “Go Down, Moses,” and “Follow the Drinking Gourd.” What images and sentiments are found in all of them?

Later African American artists drew on imagery in spirituals such as “Roll, Jordan, Roll.” Compare and contrast “Roll, Jordan, Roll” with Sam Cooke’s 1964 song “A Change Is Gonna Come.” Why do you think Cooke drew inspiration from spirituals?


"Roll Jordan, Roll" performed by Topsy Chapman, Chiwetel Ejiofor, and cast on 12 Years a Slave, © 2013. Availabile on Spotify and YouTube.

View the music and lyrics for "Roll, Jordan, Roll."

“Roll, Jordan, Roll” is a spiritual that African Americans developed communally at nineteenth-century camp meetings. The source of the spiritual was an earlier song by English Methodist preacher Charles Wesley (1707–88). Slaves came to appreciate the older song’s message of hope for release from life’s struggles and interpreted its reference to the River Jordan as code for the Ohio River, which marked the boundary between free and slave territories. Enslaved Blacks gradually transformed Wesley’s song into “Roll, Jordan Roll” via oral tradition throughout the nineteenth century.

Abolitionist song collector Lucy McKim Garrison was moved by performances of “Roll, Jordan, Roll” that she witnessed on the South Carolina Sea Islands. In 1862 she reported on her experiences in Dwight’s Journal of Music:

 

Perhaps the grandest singing we heard was at the Baptist church on St. Helena Island, when a congregation of three hundred men and women joined in a hymn–

 

 

"Roll, Jordan roll, Jordan!
Roll, Jordan, roll!"

 

It swelled forth like a triumphal anthem. That same hymn was sung by thousands of negroes on the 4th of July last, when they marched in procession under the Stars and Stripes, cheering them for the first as the 'flag of our country.' A friend writing from there, says that the chorus was indescribably grand,—'that the whole woods and world seemed joining in that rolling sound.' (Quoted in Songs of Sorrow)

McKim Garrison published an arrangement of "Roll, Jordan, Roll" for voice and piano, and the song was later included in Slave Songs of the United States (1867), which McKim Garrison helped compile with William Francis Allen and Charles Pickard Ware. The song's popularity was furthered by the Fisk Jubilee Singers, who performed it on national and international tours. It has been issued in countless arrangements since and performed by numerous singers and ensembles. Recently it was included in a poignant scene in the movie 12 Years a Slave (2013).