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Because many slaves knew the secret meanings of these songs, they could be used to signal many things. For example, Harriet Tubman used the song “Wade in the Water” to tell escaping slaves to get off the trail and into the water to make sure the dogs slavecatchers used couldn’t sniff out their trail. People walking through water did not leave a scent trail that dogs could follow. Read the words of "Wade in the Water."

Chorus: Wade in the Water, wade in the water children.
Wade in the Water. God's gonna trouble the water.

Who are those children all dressed in Red?
God's gonna trouble the water.
Must be the ones that Moses led.
God's gonna trouble the water.

Chorus.

Who are those children all dressed in White?
God's gonna trouble the water.
Must be the ones of the Israelites.
God's gonna trouble the water.

Chorus.

Who are those children all dressed in Blue?
God's gonna trouble the water.
Must be the ones that made it through.
God's gonna trouble the water.
Chorus.

  Listen to “Wade in the Water” »

Tubman also used slave songs to relay other messages. For example, sometimes she had to leave a group she was leading north to get food or other needed items. She would tell them to hide and wait for her signal. If she came back and sang one song two times, they would know it was safe to come out of hiding.

But if there was danger — slavecatchers in the area, for example — she would sing another song. This would mean that the group had to stay in hiding until Tubman sang the “all clear” song. However, if you didn’t know the signal, you might think that Tubman was singing just to pass the time of day.

Other slaves used songs as signals. For example, the Virginia slave Nat Turner, who organized a revolt against slave owners, used the song “Steal Away” as a signal to call people together to talk about their plans. Read the words of "Steal Away."

Chorus: Steal away, steal away!
Steal away to Jesus!
Steal away, steal away home!
I ain't got long to stay here!

My Lord calls me!
He calls me by the thunder!
The trumpet sounds it ina my soul!
I ain't got long to stay here!

Chorus.

My Lord, he calls me!
He calls me by the lightning!
The trumpet sounds it ina my soul!
I ain't got long to stay here!

Chorus.

  Listen to “Steal Away” »

Here’s a song that was a favorite of Harriet Tubman’s. What do you think it might mean to slaves who heard the song? What might other people have thought when they heard it?

Swing low, sweet chariot,
Coming for to carry me home,
Swing low, sweet chariot,
Coming for to carry me home.

I looked over Jordan and what did I see
Coming for to carry me home,
A band of angels coming after me,
Coming for to carry me home.

If you get there before I do,
Coming for to carry me home,
Tell all my friends that I'm coming, too,
Coming for to carry me home.


  Listen to Swing Low, Sweet Chariot »



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