Harriet Tubman talked about and used the spirituals to help guide the slaves to freedom in the North on the UGRR. Many words in the spirituals have duel meaning and were secretly coded for the slaves to help guide them on the Underground Railroad. For instance, in the spiritual “I’m on my way to Canaan Land” the word Canaan not only meant Heaven it also meant the North and specifically it meant “I’m on my way to Canada”, where slaves could live free in the years after 1833 when the British Parliament abolished slavery across the British Empire including Canada. Once across the border the slaves continued to sing the spirituals, songs their ancestors had created on American soil, as these songs were orally passed down through the generations for many reasons, one being to record their oral history for future generations to examine. As new citizens of Canada they introduced these songs to the Canadian culture.
Most of the spirituals refer to death or crossing over into the afterlife where slavery doesn’t exist, but the secret meaning was if you used the Underground Railroad you didn’t have to die to remove yourself from slavery. That is true for the spiritual Swing Low, Sweet Chariot. The secret code in this song was the word “low” meaning the deep South, lift me out of the South & slavery and carry me to freedom in the North. It was widely known for the slaves who knew about the Underground Railroad that Canada was a refuge from slavery. Harriet Tubman it is said sang this song as she passed by the window where her sibling worked in Dorchester County, MD to announce she was leaving on the UGRR headed North.
The spiritual Go Down Moses was a forbidden song for the slaves to sing as their masters, knew that was a song about escaping slavery. The slaves connected with the Biblical story of Moses leading his people to freedom and they wanted it for themselves. Harriet Tubman would defy the masters and sing that song at the top of her lungs. She became known as the “Moses of her people”. Harriet Tubman used the spirituals not only to talk with God, but to comfort and at times even to annoy people. Watch this video as she confronts a banker in NYC she believes God has chosen him to give her money to help passengers on the UGRR.