The first published version of the spiritual “Go Down, Moses,” in 1862, attributed its authorship to “The Contrabands” — escaped slaves who joined the Union Army — who probably sang it as a rallying cry, rather than as a hymn.
Harriet Tubman (nicknamed “Moses” for having led hundreds of slaves to freedom) is supposed to have used “Go Down, Moses” as coded instructions for planned plantation breakouts, but music historian Dena J. Epstein calls this into question, noting:
One of the earliest known recordings of the song, performed by a vocal quartet from the Tuskegee Institute in 1914, can be heard at the Library of Congress’s National Jukebox Project website.
The song was made popular by the great African-American bass Paul Robeson, in an art song arrangement probably by Harry T. Burleigh.
” Go Down, Moses” was used in the 1941 movie “Sullivan’s Travels,” in a scene where the protagonist has found himself on a prisoners’ chain gang during the Great Depression. The scene has many layers of meaning, resonance, and irony, as the story of the Hebrew slaves in Egyptian bondage is sung by a black congregation — the near descendants of enslaved people themselves — for a group of prisoners in chains.
In the 1955 movie “Blackboard Jungle,” the young Sidney Poitier leads a group of high school students in a rendition.
(Does this remind you of your high school?)
In the 1950s, “Go Down, Moses,” became popular as a jazz standard. In this 1958 recording, Louis Armstrong uses elements of both gospel and jazz.
It has also long been sung at American seders during the Jewish holiday of Passover. A black convert to Judaism writes:
The first time I heard a live rendition of “Go Down, Moses” was at the first Passover Seder I ever attended. Somewhere around the third cup of wine, a room full of Jews sang the classic negro spiritual in lively fashion, followed almost immediately by “O Freedom,” another classic negro spiritual.
A recording from the Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola in the 1950s is affecting on a whole other level.
Zora Neale Hurston’s 1938 novel Moses: Man of the Mountain conflates the Biblical Moses with the Moses of black folklore. Read an excerpt here.