'Escape At Sunset' painting
"Escape At Sunset" by Janice Huse

Steal away
Steal away
Steal away to Jesus
Steal away
Steal away home
I ain't got long to stay here

From "Steal Away" (traditional)

After the founding of the United States in 1776, some of the new nation's first protest songs were by and about slaves. These songs were rooted in religious hymns and spirituals with biblical themes. Titles included "Steal Away," "Go Down Moses (Let My People Go)," "We Shall Be Free" and "Run To Jesus," the song Frederick Douglass said inspired him to escape slavery in 1838.

The religious tradition quickly merged with work and field songs, evolving into more overtly political songs of action and rebellion. In 1813, a secret slave organization in South Carolina opened and closed their meetings with a song that included these lines:

Arise, arise! Shake off your chains!
Your cause is just, so Heaven ordains
To you shall freedom be proclaimed!

Call every Negro from his task
Wrest the scourge from Buckra's hand
And drive each tyrant from the land!

This song was later sung by the black freeman Denmark Vesey and his followers, who launched a failed 1822 slave revolt in Charleston, SC.

"Follow the Drinking Gourd"

"Follow the Drinking Gourd" was a song of the Underground Railroad, a network that helped slaves escape to freedom in the North. In the song, the "drinking gourd" was code for the Big Dipper constellation. Additional code words described signposts on the escape route out of Alabama and Mississippi.

Read the lyrics to "Follow the Drinking Gourd"

All lyrics are provided for informational and educational purposes only.
Lyrics are subject to all U.S. copyright laws and remain property of their respective owners.

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