Deep River is simply a cry to God from the inner soul of the slave to find comfort and acknowledgement that someone was listening to their cry. It was a song to soothe a weary soul and to communicate with God the struggle he/she was having staying focused on the path to God when so much of their daily experience as a slave was an assault on human dignity.
In the late 1800’s the melody and tempo of Deep River was altered several times from the original sound found being sung in the cotton fields of the Old South. The most notable change came from Harry Burleigh who was a classically trained singer and composer, when he used the standard musical scale to transcribe the spirituals from their origins to a musical art form. A spiritual was in its original form a cry of the human soul of the unknown slave. Unfortunately, Burleigh could only get close to transcribing the original sound of a spiritual as it is widely known, that there are not enough musical notes in the standard scale to accommodate the slides in the human voice, and the slide is the signature spirit of a spiritual. Hence, some of the essence of the spirituals have been lost in the heroic attempts to save them.
Harry Burleigh was no stranger to the black spirituals and plantation songs, his father was a former slave and Burleigh sang spirituals regularly. He was also instrumental in introducing the European composer Antonin Dvorak to the black spirituals. Dvorak was profoundly moved by the spirituals. In fact it inspired Dvorak to compose “The New World Symphony”, which paid homage to the black spirituals. Burleigh helped Dvorak with the copy work for that symphony. While living in America studying the music in the new world, Antonin Dvorak stated in an article in 1895- “A while ago I suggested that inspiration for truly national music might be derived from the Negro melodies or Indian chants. I was led to take this view partly by the fact that the so-called plantation songs are indeed the most striking and appealing melodies that have yet been found on this side of the water, but largely by the observation that this seems to be recognized, though often unconsciously, by most Americans. All races have their distinctively national songs, which they at once recognize as their own, even if they have never heard them before.”