The Mudcat Café TM
Thread #31582   Message #1368515
Posted By: Azizi
31-Dec-04 - 06:56 PM
Thread Name: Lyr Req: The Little Black Train
Subject: RE: Lyr Req: The Little Black Train
Here's Dorothy Scarborough's quote about this song already given in excerpted form:

"A more sinister aspect of train-arrival [in "Negro" folk songs] is in another Holy Roller song from Texas. The little black train here represents Death, and the passengers for whom seats are reserved appear not to be crowding eagerly about the ticket window. This train had no schedule, but, like other public carriers, is uncertain in its time arrival and departure. But a delay here brings forth no complaints against the management."

end of quote

I'm curious if anyone knows of any serious study on the relationship between the use of referents such as "gospel train" and other trains in spirituals and the "Underground Railroad" 'system' that helped enslaved African Americans escape to the Northern states and to Canada.

I ask this because I've come to believe that 20th-21st century people may be romantizing and over-estimating the amount of times that spirituals were used to rely coded messages about plans to escape slavery.

There's a number of websites that make brief mention of the use of double meanings or 'coded messages' in spirituals. Most of them list African American spirituals such as "Steal Away," "Follow the Drinking Gourd," "Deep River," and "Swing Low, Sweet Chariot" as examples of spirituals used to alert others that they would be fleeing slavery [perhaps with help from someone skilled in such escape like Harriet Tubman].

Now, I don't deny that spirituals had multiple uses- sometimes they were sung to express religious faith; to sustain and encourage folk, and to set the rhythm for backbreaking work. And undoubtedly sometimes they were sung to relay hidden messages. But I wonder how much of this escape from slavery coded message element was promoted in the 20th century or before to counteract the erroneous belief and teaching that African Americans were content to be slaves.

It just seems to me that what with the presence of snitches {i.e. fellow slaves who wouldn't think twice about "tellin on" a person if there was something in it for them} it was too risky to publicly sing out your plan to escape that evening or soon and very soon.

Of course, lines in spirituals like "run to Jesus" or "you better run 'fore de train done gone" and "I aint got long to stay here"
sound like they could have been used as coded messages.

But I think using these songs this way was done very selectively and very carefully, since escape from slavery was a very dangerous undertaking. It would seem that the least said about such a plan, the better.