It begins with a well-known bible story in the book of Exodus, or Hebrew Sh’mot. In Egypt, the Jews served as slaves to the Pharaoh and were rescued by Moses, with the assistance of his brother Aaron. The Jews were led out of Egypt to what was called “the promised land,” known commonly as Israel. It was there that the Jews developed their religious traditions that would be spread across the world for everyone who followed the Jewish faith.
Once Passover became a widely celebrated Jewish holiday, songs became a large part of the Passover Seder. These songs are often referred to as “songs of freedom,” and any group of people whose circumstances are similar to that of the enslaved Jews could easily find their own stories in the lyrics from the usual song-list; which includes songs like “Dayenu” and “Chad Gadya.” But also among today’s Passover song lists throughout the Western world, is one that began on America’s southern plantations, “Go Down, Moses.”
Listening to the lyrics, the context of “Go Down, Moses,” may seem more relevant to Jewish history than to African-Americans. However, knowing that the black slaves in America used songs in code to communicate on the cotton and tobacco fields, the song has a slightly different meaning. The lyrics to beginning of the negro spiritual read: “When Israel was in Egypt’s land / Let my people go / Oppressed so hard they could not stand / Let my people go / Go down, Moses / Way down in Egypt’s land / Tell ol’ Pharaoh / Let my people go.” In the case of the slaves, the south was Egypt, the slave master was Pharaoh, they were the oppressed, and Moses had yet to come.
“Go Down, Moses” was first published by the Fisk University Jubliee Singers in 1872 and later added to the Christian hymnals. The song was first made famous by New Jersey singer and activist, Paul Robeson Jr. His deep, eerie northern articulate voice got the attention of the American Jewish population and is often described as “the voice of God.” The song was widely sung through the American Civil Rights Movement and still holds relevance to that era today.
During Passover, the song serves a special purpose, as a reminder of the Jewish voyage to freedom in the “promised land”. A voyage that modern ancestors of the “chosen ones” will “never forget.”
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