Go Down Moses

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"Go Down, Moses"
Fisk Jubilee Singers (earliest attested)
GenreNegro spiritual

"Go Down Moses" is a spiritual phrase that describes events in the Old Testament of the Bible, specifically Exodus 5:1:[1] "And the LORD spake 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. This phrase is the title of the one of the most well known African American spirituals of all time. The song discusses themes of freedom, a very common occurrence in spirituals.[2] In fact, the song actually had multiple messages, discussing not only the metaphorical freedom of Moses but also the physical freedom of runaway slaves,[3] and many slave holders outlawed this song because of those very messages.[4] 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

The lyrics of the song represent liberation of the ancient Jewish people from Egyptian slavery, a story recounted in the Old Testament. For enslaved African Americans, the story was very powerful because they could relate to the experiences of Moses and the Israelites who were enslaved by the pharaoh, representing the slave holders,[5] and it holds the hopeful message that God will help those who are persecuted. The song also makes references to the Jordan River, which was often referred to in spirituals to describe finally reaching freedom because such an act of running away often involved crossing one or more rivers.[6][7] Going "down" to Egypt is derived from the Bible; the Old Testament recognizes the Nile Valley as lower than Jerusalem and the Promised Land; thus, going to Egypt means going "down"[8] while going away from Egypt is "up".[9] 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 led to the idiom "sell [someone] down the river" in present-day English.[10]

"Oh! Let My People Go"[edit]

"Oh! Let My People Go"
Sheet music cover, 1862
GenreNegro spiritual

Although usually thought of as a spiritual, the earliest written record of the song was as a rallying anthem for the Contrabands at Fort Monroe sometime before July 1862. White people who reported on the song presumed it was composed by them.[11] This became the first ever spiritual to be recorded in sheet music that is known of, by Reverend Lewis Lockwood. While visiting Fortress Monroe in 1861, he heard runaway slaves singing this song, transcribed what he heard, and then eventually published it in the National Anti-Slavery Standard.[12] 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 that the song was from Virginia, dating from about 1853.[13] However, the song was not included in Slave Songs of the United States, despite it being a very prominent spiritual among slaves. Furthermore, the original version of the song sung by slaves almost definitely sounded very different from what Lockwood transcribed by ear, especially following an arrangement by a person who had never before heard the song how it was originally sung.[14] 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 (1869), quotes Tubman as saying she used "Go Down Moses" as one of two code songs fugitive slaves used to communicate when fleeing Maryland.[15] 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.[16] Some people even hypothesize that she herself may have written the spiritual.[17] Although others claim Nat Turner, who led one of the most well-known slave revolts in history, either wrote or was the inspiration for the song.[18]

In popular culture[edit]





  • 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 his cousin Carlton Banks are thrown into prison (Smith sings the first two lines, Banks sullenly provides the refrain, then a prisoner sings the final four lines in an operatic voice.)[27] 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 replies with his own version, in which he makes a joke about Carlton's height ("...Let my cousin grow!").[citation needed]
  • In Dr. Katz, Professional Therapist is sung by Katz and Ben during the end credits of the episode "Thanksgiving" (Season 5, Episode 18).
  • Della Reese sings it in Episode 424, "Elijah", of Touched by an Angel, which Bruce Davison sings "Eliyahu".
  • In series 2 episode 3 of Life on Mars, the lawyer sings for his client's release.


See also[edit]


  1. ^ Bible: Exodus 5:1
  2. ^ Newman, R. S. (1998). Go Down Moses: A Celebration of the African-American Spiritual. Clarkson N. Potter.
  3. ^ Darden, R. (2004). People Get Ready! A New History of Black Gospel Music. Bloomsbury.
  4. ^ Newman, R. S. (1998). Go Down Moses: A Celebration of the African-American Spiritual. Clarkson N. Potter.
  5. ^ Darden, R. (2004). People Get Ready! A New History of Black Gospel Music. Bloomsbury.
  6. ^ Cleveland, J. J. (Ed.). (1981). Songs of Zion. Abingdon Press.
  7. ^ Cornelius, Steven (2004). Music of the Civil War Era. Greenwood Publishing Group. p. 118. ISBN 0313320810
  8. ^ For example, in Genesis 42:2 Jacob commands his sons to "go down to Egypt" to buy grain
  9. ^ In Exodus 1:10, Pharaoh expresses apprehension that the Hebrews would join Egypt's enemies and "go up [i.e. away] from the land"
  10. ^ Phrases.org.uk
  11. ^ "Editor's Table". The Continental Monthly. 2: 112–113. July 1862 – via Cornell University. 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.
  12. ^ Graham, S. (2018). Spirituals and the Birth of a Black Entertainment Industry. University of Illinois Press.
  13. ^ Lockwood, "Oh! Let My People Go", p. 5: "This Song has been sung for about nine years by the Slaves of Virginia."
  14. ^ Graham, S. (2018). Spirituals and the Birth of a Black Entertainment Industry. University of Illinois Press.
  15. ^ Bradford, Sarah (1869). Scenes in the Life of Harriet Tubman. Dennis Brothers & Co. pp. 26–27. Archived from the original on June 13, 2017 – via University of North Carolina: Documenting the American South.
  16. ^ "Summary of Scenes in the Life of Harriet Tubman". docsouth.unc.edu. Retrieved January 25, 2017.
  17. ^ Darden, R. (2004). People Get Ready! A New History of Black Gospel Music. Bloomsbury.
  18. ^ Newman, R. S. (1998). Go Down Moses: A Celebration of the African-American Spiritual. Clarkson N. Potter.
  19. ^ "Easy A – Original Sound Tracks". IMDB.
  20. ^ Brooks, Daphne (January 1, 2006). Bodies in Dissent: Spectacular Performances of Race and Freedom, 1850–1910. Duke University Press. p. 307. ISBN 0822337223.
  21. ^ Nollen, Scott Allen (2004). Louis Armstrong: The Life, Music, and Screen Career. McFarland. p. 142. ISBN 9780786418572.
  22. ^ Muhammad, Siebra. "BLACK MUSIC MOMENT: HISTORY OF "GO DOWN MOSES" ~ THE SONG USUALLY THOUGHT OF AS A SPIRITUAL". jobs.blacknews.com. Retrieved September 22, 2017.
  23. ^ "Go Down Moses". Allmusic.com.
  24. ^ An Israel Haggadah for Passover. New York: H. N. Abrams. 1970.
  25. ^ Russian Interior Ministry (MVD) Choir Recording. "Go Down Moses". YouTube.
  26. ^ "The Weight | Robbie-Robertson.com". robbie-robertson.com. Retrieved March 12, 2017.
  27. ^ NBC The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air. "Go Down Moses". YouTube.
  28. ^ Gibbs, Craig Martin (2012). Black Recording Artists, 1877–1926: An Annotated Discography. McFarland. p. 43. ISBN 1476600856.
  29. ^ "The Golden Gate Quartet – Spirituals". Genius. Retrieved April 6, 2020.
  30. ^ The album itself!


  • 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]