“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.

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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.

Counting contacts

A couple of years ago, a special ed. teacher was telling me about a technique she finds is very useful to make sure she connects with every child in her classes. She counts the number of “contacts” she has with each child — each time she makes eye contact, etc. — and she attempts to make a minimum number of contacts with each child in each teaching session. This is a common technique for teachers, and other variations of it may use different terminology, and may have different criteria for what constitutes a contact. For use in Sunday school, my criteria for a contact is making eye contact or addressing a child directly in a positive interaction (addressing a child for misbehavior doesn’t count), and I’ve been aiming for a minimum of five contacts with each child in a group of 8-10 children, during a typical 50 minute session.

Yesterday, I was teaching the fourth and fifth grade Sunday school class. While I was presenting the story of Moses and the golden calf, I was also counting contacts. It’s easy to make contact with the bright responsive kids; it’s also easy to make contacts with the troublemakers (I tend to like kids who are troublemakers, so I tend to have quite a few positive interactions with them).

But about two thirds of the way through the session, I realized that I had made absolutely no contacts with one of the boys. He sat there quietly and didn’t cause any trouble, so he didn’t draw attention to himself like the troublemakers. He never participated in any of the discussions, so again he didn’t draw any attention to himself. He was, in fact, extremely adept at blending into the background and disappearing from view. Even after I noticed that I wasn’t noticing him, I found it difficult to make myself have any interaction with him — he was that good at deflecting attention from himself. At last, towards the end of the session, I was rewarded — he actually looked up at me, and looked me in the eye.

I think this boy is not all that unusual; I can think of other fourth and fifth grade boys who manage to remove themselves from the circle of adult attention in congregations. I know we lose a lot of boys from Sunday school at about fourth and fifth grade, and I wonder if this is part of the reason why. If you’re teaching Sunday school, especially with upper elementary children, I’d love to hear your thoughts on this.