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Article Songs Related to the Abolition of Slavery

Sheet Music: Slavery is a Hard Foe to Battle
"Slavery is a Hard Foe To Battle." Lyrics by Judson, 1855. The Hutchinson Family of singers performed many songs related to progressive movements such as the abolition of slavery, temperance, and women's sufferage in popular venues. Select the link to view the sheet music.

Songs of the Abolitionists

Among the most disempowered people of early America were slaves, who came from many African cultures, spoke many different languages, held a variety of beliefs, but worked together at the lowest level of society. The abolition of slavery was a concern of the emerging nation from the colonial period. European-American abolitionists created songs to persuade others to join their movement, many of them based on Christian hymns. In the video example, Mike Seeger sings "Stolen Souls from Africa," an abolitionist song that existed in many versions. [1] Sheet music examples of songs about abolition available online include: "Jonathan's Appeal to Caroline," "Slavery is a Hard Foe to Battle," "We Wait Beneath the Furnace Blast," and "The Slave's Consolation."

African American Spirituals as Protest Against Slavery

African American slaves created their own spirituals and work songs for use among themselves. Although under slavery they could not directly express the desire to be free, they could sing songs based on the Old Testament stories that related to their condition. They sang songs such as "Come Along, Moses"[2] about the plight of the enslaved Israelites and the spiritual "Sampson" (also spelled "Samson"), about the strongest man, betrayed and put in chains. Spirituals dealing with the freedom that would come to slaves through salvation when they died may have been used as a metaphor for actual escapes to freedom. Harriet Tubman described using songs for her part in the Underground Railroad to her biographer, Sarah Bradford.[3] She said that she sang the spiritual "Go Down Moses"[4] and a version of the hymn "Thorny Desert" [5] to announce her presence to slaves who might want to her to help them to run away to freedom. There is current debate among historians about which other spirituals of the slavery era may have been used on the Underground Railroad, but Tubman's autobiographical account provides the clearest evidence that some songs were used in this way.

American Indian Participation in the Abolition of Slavery

Among the places that slaves could run to and avoid capture were lands belonging to American Indian tribes by treaty. Before the United States acquired Florida, slaves could flee there to both leave the United States and seek allies among the Seminole tribe. In the webcast Tim Tingle and D.J. Battiest-Tomasi: Oklahoma Choctaw Music and Storytelling, available in this presentation, Tim Tingle tells a story about how the Choctaw people came to have version of the song, "Bound for the Promised Land," in Choctaw and sings the song as part of the story (this story begins at about timecode 00:38). The story may be fictionalized, but the underlying truth is that southern Indian Nations did provide havens for runaway slaves. Unfortunately the participation of Southern tribes in helping slaves was one of the reasons that they became targets for removal west of the Mississippi, also discussed in the webcast. But the American Indian removal and the later creation of the reservation system did not deter tribes from continuing to assist runaway slaves, as some reservations became part of the Underground Railroad system. [6]


  1. "Song of the Coffle Gang," was published in The Liberty Minstral, compiled by George W. Clark, 1844. The version Mike Seeger sings has lyrics that vary from the original, but is still recognizable as the same song. Although Clark took credit only for the music and said that the lyrics were sung by chained slaves being taken to be sold, this was probably an artistic device, as the language of the song does not seem to match historic descriptions of songs coffle gangs were made to sing by slave traders. Songs of white abolitionists often were narrated from the slave's point of view as a method of pursuasion. The video of Mike Seeger singing the song is an exerpt from the two hour webcast, "How Can I Keep from Singing: A Seeger Family Tribute" symposium concert, which is also avialable in its entirity. [back to article]
  2. "Come Along Moses," in Slave Songs of the United States, edited by William Francis Allen, Charles Pickard Ware, and Lucy Kim Garrison, 1867. Available online via the the University Library, The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. [back to article]
  3. Bradford, Sarah H. 1886. Harriet: The Moses of Her People, is available online via the University of North Carolina's "Documenting the American South" site. [back to article]
  4. "Go Down Moses," is avaliable online in Victor recordings of the Tuskegee Institute Singers in 1914 and of Marian Anderson performing a more operatic arrangement in 1924. [back to article]
  5. Comparing the lyrics of "Thorny Desert" as given to Sarah Bradford by Harriet Tubman to the published version composed by William Walker in The Southern Harmony, and Musical Companion (compiled by William Walker, 1847), Tubman's version, while recognizably from same song, has shorter verses, and so may have been sung to a different tune. [back to article]
  6. For more information about American Indian participation in the Underground Railroad, see Darryl Omar Freeman's The First Freedom Line: The Untold Story of American Indian Underground Railroad Activities During the Antebellum Period (Aiding Fugitive Enslaved African Americans Escape to Freedom in Canada 1820-1865). PhD dissertation, Washington State University, 2012. [back to article]


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