Go Down Moses

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This article is about the song. For the book by William Faulkner, see Go Down, Moses (short story collection).
"Go Down, Moses"
Music by Traditional
Form Negro spiritual
Original artist Fisk Jubilee Singers
(Earliest attested)
Choral version by Les Petits Chanteurs de Montigny

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"Go Down Moses" is an American Negro spiritual. It describes events in the Old Testament of the Bible, specifically Exodus 7:16: "And the Lord spoke unto Moses, go unto Pharaoh, and say unto him, thus saith the Lord, Let my people go, that they may serve me", in which God commands Moses to demand the release of the Israelites from bondage in Egypt. The opening verse as published by the Jubilee Singers in 1872:

When Israel was in Egypt's land: Let my people go,
Oppress'd so hard they could not stand, Let my People go.
Go down, Moses,
Way down in Egypt's land,
Tell old Pharaoh,
Let my people go.

In the song "Israel" represents the African-American slaves while "Egypt" and "Pharaoh" represent the slavemaster.

Going "down" to Egypt is derived from the Biblical origin, where Egypt is consistently perceived as being "below" other lands, with going to Egypt being "down" [1] while going away from Egypt is "up".[2] In the context of American slavery, this ancient sense of "down" converged with the concept of "down the river" (the Mississippi), where slaves' conditions were notoriously worse, a situation which left the idiom "sell [someone] down the river" in present-day English.[3]

"Oh! Let My People Go"[edit]

"Oh! Let My People Go"
(The Song of the Contrabands)
Cover of sheet music, 1862
Music by Traditional
Published 1862
Form Negro spiritual
Original artist Contrabands

Although usually thought of as a spiritual, the earliest recorded use of the song was as a rallying anthem for the Contrabands at Fort Monroe sometime before July 1862. Early authorities presumed it was composed by them.[4] Sheet music was soon after published, titled "Oh! Let My People Go: The Song of the Contrabands" and arranged by Horace Waters. L.C. Lockwood, chaplain of the Contrabands, stated in the sheet music the song was from Virginia, dating from about 1853.[5] The opening verse, as recorded by Lockwood, is:

The Lord, by Moses, to Pharaoh said: Oh! let my people go.
If not, I'll smite your first-born dead—Oh! let my people go.
Oh! go down, Moses,
Away down to Egypt's land,
And tell King Pharaoh
To let my people go.

Sarah Bradford's authorized biography of Harriet Tubman, Scenes in the Life of Harriet Tubman, published in 1869, quotes Tubman as saying that she used "Go Down Moses" as one of two code songs to communicate with fugitive enslaved people escaping slavery from Maryland.[6] Tubman began her underground railroad work in 1850, and continued until the beginning of the civil war. So it's possible Tubman's use of the song predates the origin claimed by Lockwood.

Popular culture[edit]

The song was made famous by Paul Robeson whose voice, deep and resonant as it was, was said by some to have attained the status of the voice of God. On February 7, 1958, the song was recorded in New York City, and sung by Louis Armstrong with Sy Oliver's Orchestra. It was recorded by Doris Akers and the Sky Pilot Choir in 1958. The song has since become a jazz standard, having been recorded by Grant Green, Fats Waller, Archie Shepp, Hampton Hawes and many others.[7]

It is also one of the spirituals used in the oratorio "A Child of Our Time" by the English composer Michael Tippett.

William Faulkner titled his 1942 novel Go Down, Moses after the song.

A Hebrew translation of the song is a common element in the Passover seder in Israel.

A reference is made to the song in the 1986 film Ferris Bueller's Day Off when a bedridden Cameron Frye sings, "When Cameron was in Egypt's land, let my Cameron go".

The NBC television comedy The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air twice used the song for comedic effect. In the first instance, Will Smith's character sings the song after he and cousin Carlton Banks are thrown into prison (Smith sings the first two lines, Banks sullenly providing the refrain, then a prisoner sings the final four lines in an operatic voice.) In the second instance, Banks is preparing for an Easter service and attempts to show off his prowess by singing the last two lines of the chorus; Smith jokingly replies with his own version, in which he makes a joke about Carlton's height ("...Let my cousin grow!").

Also sung by Gregory Miller (played by Sidney Poitier) in the 1955 film Blackboard Jungle.

The song was recorded by Deep River Boys in Oslo on September 26, 1960. It was released on the extended play Negro Spirituals No. 3 (HMV 7EGN 39).

Also sung by Jess Lee Brooks in the 1941 Preston Sturges film Sullivan's Travels.

The song, or a modified version of it, has been used in the Roger Jones musical From Pharaoh to Freedom.

Also sung by Della Reese in Episode 424, "Elijah", of Touched by an Angel while Bruce Davison sang "Eliyahu".

Sergei Bodrov Jr. and Oleg Menshikov, who play the two main characters in Sergei Bodrov's 1996 film Кавказский пленник (Prisoner of the Mountains) dance to the Louis Armstrong version.

In 2010, the teen comedy film Easy A remixed this song with a fast guitar and beats. The song was originally published as Original Soundtrack and is listed in Imdb.[8]

The French singer Claude Nougaro used its melody for his tribute to Louis Armstrong in French, under the name Armstrong.

Heavily influences the song "Get Down Moses", by Joe Strummer & the Mescaleros on their album Streetcore.

In an ironic move, the song has been performed by the Russian Interior Ministry (MVD) Choir.[9]

The song is also sung in the 2013 miniseries The Spies of Warsaw.

A swing version has been released on 2013 under the name "Own The Nigh" by the jazz singer Tony Vitti.

The phrase "Go Down Moses" is featured in the chorus of the 2009 John Craigie song, "Will Not Fight".


  • The Golden Gate Quartet (Duration: 3:05; year and album unknown).

"Go Down Moses" was recorded by the Robert Shaw Chorale on RCA Victor 33 record LM/LSC 2580, copyright 1964, first side, second band, lasting 4 minutes and 22 seconds. Liner notes by noted African-American author Langston Hughes. My source is, of course, the album itself! Irvin Murrell


  1. ^ For example, in Genesis 42:2 Jacob commands his sons to "go down to Egypt" to buy grain
  2. ^ In Exodus 1:11, Pharaoh expresses apprehension that the Hebrews would join Egypt's enemies and "go up [i.e. away] from the land"
  3. ^ Phrases.org.uk
  4. ^ The Continental Monthly, Vol II, pp. 114-113, "We are indebted to Clark's School-Visitor for the following song of the Contrabands, which originated among the latter, and was first sung by them in the hearing of white people at Fortress Monroe, where it was noted down by their chaplain, Rev. L.C. Lockwood."
  5. ^ Lockwood, "Oh! Let My People Go", p. 5: "This Song has been sung for about nine years by the Slaves of Virginia."
  6. ^ See http://docsouth.unc.edu/neh/bradford/bradford.html, pp. 26-27.
  7. ^ Go Down Moses," from Allmusic.com
  8. ^ IMDB : Easy A - Original Sound Tracks
  9. ^ Russian Interior Ministry (MVD) Choir Recording


  • The Continental Monthly. Vol. II (July–December, 1862). New York.
  • Lockwood, L.C. "Oh! Let My People Go: The Song of the Contrabands". New York: Horace Waters (1862).

External links[edit]