Songs from the African-American Railroad

By Jennifer Ellis

After 18 months of being online, it was amazing to return to regular in-person rehearsals in 2021. Over the summer, I had the opportunity to arrange a piece, on the theme of ‘World Music’, as a change from our usual genre. As I had been given free rein within the theme, I chose to arrange a medley of three pieces from the African-American railroad: Go Down Moses, Now Let Me Fly and Yankee Doodle.

I enjoyed the many challenges this presented, including the varied number of instruments and making sure the tune was shared across the whole orchestra, so it could be heard! After spending hours working on my arrangement, it was very emotional to hear real instruments playing it rather than the synthesised sounds from the software I was using.

Go Down Moses

The first song in the medley is “Go Down Moses”, which is believed to have been written around 1800 by slaves, inspired by the biblical story of the Jews’ liberation from slavery in Egypt. It holds the hopeful message that God will help those who are persecuted, which gave those stuck in slavery hope that they might, one day, be free. The words ‘Let my people go!’ are frequently repeated, which is showing how desperate they are to be freed.

Now Let Me Fly

‘Way down yonder in de middle o’ de fiel’’ is the powerful opening line, referring to the large amount of people being used as slaves.

Because it is more of a spiritual song, it encouraged and conveyed coded information to escaping slaves as they moved along the various Underground Railroad routes. As many slaves weren’t allowed to learn to read or write, slaves used songs to warn each other of dangers and obstacles along escape routes, as well as when they could escape and where they could escape to. The song refers to the biblical story of Ezekiel’s Wheels. It also talks about a ‘promised land’, which could have improved the mood of the slaves, as there would be hope that they could eventually get to a better place.

Yankee Doodle

This is more upbeat than the others, as it was a dance tune popular with reels and jigs. The Americans and the Brits both interpreted the words differently and had their own versions, and both countries have sung it during wars. The famous line: ‘He stuck a feather in his hat and called it macaroni’ actually refers to the English youth cult from the 1760s and ’70s, who wore huge wigs, tight jackets, and winklepicker shoes. 

Yankee Doodle was sung to mock the Americans, and it became an anthem for the American’s during the American Revolution, when they turned it into a song of pride. Although this song isn’t actually part of the railroad, it derives from the earlier resolution, and unfortunately there aren’t any recordings of the original song. 

The song ‘A Yankee Doodle Tan’ was written as a theme song for the World War II “Double V Campaign”. African-Americans were among the volunteers who served in the war, despite being supposedly ‘second class citizens’ at that time in the USA. The song highlights the American idea of equality, freedom, and liberty, but it emphasises how much the African-Americans sacrificed for the country during the war. Music has always been a powerful way of sharing messages, which is why this links in with the other two songs, as they were used to send messages to those seeking freedom and equality.


You can hear us play this piece at our Spring Concert on Sunday 3rd April 2022 – go to our Concerts page for details.

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