Monday, September 10, 2007

The Robe and Crown

A reader from Dublin wrote me to ask if I knew about the connection between "Down to the River to Pray" and the Underground Railroad. A friend of hers said that the person who wore the robe and starry crown was next to be freed from slavery via the Underground Railroad. I found some sources on Gospel songs used for secret communication, but I couldn't find anything that confirmed this story. Does anyone out there know more details?

1 comment:

David said...

I emailed a friend of mine who has done some research in this area. Here was her off-the-cuff email response, pasted here with her permission!

A couple of things:

1) Re. "wearing the robe and starry crown": this is actually a stock phrase that shows up in the text of several spirituals. It's so popular that it is also part of the wandering couplets that tend to be used in moments of improvisation in gospel music (the complete phrase is something like: "when I get to heaven I'm gonna sit right down/ask my Lord for my starry crown"). So it's not particularly linked to "Down to the River".

2) Re. interpreting parts of the spirituals as coded messages that referred to literal geographic freedom: yes. Many of the spirituals can be read this way--we have lots of evidence from interviews with former slaves that make this clear ("Follow the Drinking Gourd" and "Steal Away to Jesus" are two that come up in interviews several times as having particular significance.) As to the coded significance of the robe/crown phrase--I've never seen it mentioned in interviews with former slaves, but that doesn't mean that people have [not?] interpreted it to signify literal geographic freedom. At the very least, since it refers to the singer's eventual status in heaven as a glorified being with valuable garments and possessions, it certainly denotes a future filled with hope and freedom (at least at a metaphorical level).

I am notoriously wary of attempts to "decode" the spirituals on a line-by-line basis; the African-American rhetorical tradition of investing Christian imagery with multiple layers of meaning makes this a potentially reductive and fruitless process. I think there are other, richer ways to think about interpretation of the texts that are more reflective of historical reality (i.e., very few slaves actually attempted or succeeded in escaping, so we need to not view their entire body of sacred song as one massive Morse Code).

For what it's worth! Many thanks to my friend for her insights. Hope this helps your reader.