Before I'd Be a Slave
(Oh, Freedom)

Traditional

"Before I'd Be a Slave" was first written down in 1899. Its text is decidedly of the era of emancipation, that is, the era following the end of the Civil War in 1865. Compare and contrast the song with African American songs known to be from the period of enslavement, such as "Go Down, Moses" and "Roll, Jordan, Roll."

The genre of the spiritual was a genre created by African Americans. This is in contrast with the genre of minstrelsy, which depicted Blacks but was created by whites. Many Blacks began to work in minstrelsy after the Civil War. Compare "Before I'd Be a Slave" to "Carry Me Back to Old Virginny," a minstrel song by African American songwriter James Bland. How did the conventions of minstrelsy restrict African American artists in ways that the conventions of the spiritual did not?

Based on your reading of the lyrics, why do you think "Before I'd Be a Slave" resonated with activists during the Civil Rights Movement in the 1960s?


“Oh Freedom,” by Princely Players. Wade in the Water, vol. 1, African American Spirituals: The Concert Tradition. Smithsonian Folkways [CD SF40076], © 1994. Available on iTunes and Spotify.

This arrangement, with rich harmonies, is in the concert tradition of the spiritual inaugurated by the Fisk Jubilee Singers following the Civil War.

“Spiritual Trilogy: Oh Freedom / Come and Go With Me / I’m On My Way,” by Odetta. On Odetta Sings Ballads and Blues. Tradition Recordings [TLP 1010], 1957. Available on Spotify and iTunes.

Odetta’s “Spiritual Trilogy,” which begins with “Before I’d Be a Slave (Oh Freedom),” was a source of inspiration during the Civil Rights Movement.

View the lyrics for "Before I'd Be a Slave."

View the published score.

Fisk jubilee singers
The Fisk Jubilee Singers on their first expedition.

After the Civil War the spiritual became an important and influential genre of music outside of the communities of enslaved people it had nurtured prior to emancipation. One of the most prominent ensembles to promote the genre was the Fisk Jubilee Singers, which was a choir composed of students from a school for Black students outside of Nashville, Tennessee, called Fisk University. Known primarily for their arrangements of songs that had been sung by enslaved people, the Jubilee Singers toured nationally and internationally, popularizing the spiritual and presenting the world with a positive and professional image of African Americans, a strong contrast from the representations of blackface minstrelsy.

The Jubilee Singers published their arrangements, and their publications were so successful that they inspired others to perform and publish spirituals as well. William E. Barton's Old Plantation Hymns (1899) included some of the same songs that the Jubilee Singers had already published, but also incorporated new ones, including "Before I'd Be a Slave," which had never been published before.

"Before I'd Be a Slave" conveys a message of strength and resilience—"Before I'd be a slave, I'd be buried in my grave"—that continues to resonate with many listeners and performers. It was especially meaningful during the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 1960s, when it was performed and recorded by musicians such as Odetta and Joan Baez.