What Kind of Secret Messages Were Sent in Songs on the Underground Railroad?
Throughout history, people have found clever ways to hide messages in songs. One example is African American spirituals. They sometimes held secret messages for people on the Underground Railroad.
Harriet Tubman was one of the leaders of the Underground Railroad. She and others involved used many terms from the railroad industry to form their own code. It was like a secret language they used to help people escape slavery. They could spread messages by singing songs with their code words. This was more effective and safer than writing.
What secret messages were sent in songs on the Underground Railroad? Some gave people directions—these were called signal songs. Others, called map songs, told people where to meet. Together, they helped many people make their way northward.
Many of these songs included references to people, places, and stories from the Bible. For example, many of them talked about the land of Canaan. In the Bible, Canaan was the promised land for the people of Israel. For those running from slavery, Canaan meant Canada, a land of freedom.
Another example is the song “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot.” The lyrics spoke of, “a band of angels coming after me, coming for to carry me home.” This song gave many people hope. The words meant that people were coming soon to help them escape.
Other common code words were baggage (people escaping slavery) and drinking gourd (the Big Dipper and the North Star). Some messages also talked about the freedom train (the Underground Railroad) or Moses (Harriet Tubman). People sang about crossing the River Jordan (Ohio River) and finding a station (safe house). Escaping from slavery was very dangerous. Secret messages in songs gave people a safer way to spread the word.