“Go Down, Moses”

“Go Down, Moses” is a classic spiritual song from the African American tradition. The earliest known publication was in 1862, in an arrangement derived from a song sung by escaped slaves.

This arrangement comes from the Fisk University Jubilee Singers, perhaps the first African American musical ensemble to tour internationally. They published their arrangement in The Story of the Jubilee Singers: With Their Songs (New York: Biglow & Main, 1872). Their version has 24 verses, telling how Moses led the Israelites to freedom (Exodus 12:29 through Exodus 14 in the Hebrew Bible); other verses mention other matters outside of this basic story. See Historical Background below for how this sacred song has been used as a song of freedom.

"Go Down, Moses" thumbnail

Go Down, Moses (PDF, 5-1/2 x 8-1/2 in. for order of service inserts)

Historical background: Harriet Tubman used this as a code song when she was helping enslaved persons escape to the north. Sarah Bradford, in her biography of Tubman, (Auburn, N. Y.: W. J. Moses, 1869), pp. 26-27, wrote: “I give these words exactly as Harriet sang them to me to a sweet and simple Methodist air. ‘De first time I go by singing dis hymn, dey don’t come out to me,’ she said, ’till I listen if de coast is clar; den when I go back and sing it again, dey come out. But if I sing:
‘Moses go down in Egypt,
‘Till ole Pharo’ let me go;
‘Hadn’t been for Adam’s fall,
‘Shouldn’t hab to died at all,’
den dey don’t come out, for dere’s danger in de way.'”

Performance notes: The Fisk Jubilee Singers were first recorded more than three decades after their founding, after many changes of personnel and music directors. In spite of the lapse of time, those early recordings are the best indication we have for the vocal style of the nineteenth century Jubilee Singers. These early recordings reveal a disciplined ensemble with light vibrato, careful enunciation, and precise intonation; a few early recordings are available online at the Cylinder Preservation and Digitization Project, U.C. Santa Barbara. The spare arrangement of “Go Down, Moses” seems to demand discipline, care, and precision in performance. However, the fluid melody is tolerant of the vagaries of congregational singing, and the simplicity of the arrangement means that the average congregation can learn how to sing this song in 4 part harmony.

For an introduction to this sacred song project, including information on copyright, click here.

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