“Roll, Jordan, Roll”: A Critique of Slavery and a Story of Hope

The spiritual “Roll, Jordan, Roll” is one of the most well-known of the “sorrow songs”. W.E.B. Du Bois coined the term “sorrow songs” in his 1903 publication, The Souls of Black Folk, as a name for the songs sung by the African-American slaves in the Southern states. Throughout the book, each chapter begins with an excerpt from a work of Western literature and then two bars from an untitled slave song. In the final chapter, aptly titled “The Sorrow Songs”, Du Bois explains why he included the songs:

“They that walked in darkness sang in the olden days- Sorrow Songs- for they were weary at heart. And so before each thought that I have written in this book I have set a phrase, a haunting echo of these weird old songs in which the souls of the black slave spoke to men” (204).

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Several of the sorrow songs Du Bois mentions in the final chapter were written specifically as slave songs, such as the infamous “Swing low, Sweet chariot”. Therefore, the stories told by these songs are clearly critiques of slavery and white oppression. It is worth noting, however, that the sorrow song “Roll, Jordan, Roll” was not written as a slave song. Instead, an English Methodist preacher named Charles Wesley wrote the original composition in the 18th century as Christian gospel music. Wesley did not write the song as a critique of civilization, but through the appropriation of the song by slaves in America, “Roll, Jordan, Roll” is now considered a “primary example of slaves’ claiming and subverting a Christian message to express their own needs and send their own messages” (Powers). Although the lyrics of “Roll, Jordan, Roll” allude to distinctly Christian themes, the enslaved African-Americas adopted the song and subverted the story into a critique of slavery, and a message of hope.

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The original lyrics of the spiritual, as published in the 1867 anthology Slave Songs of the United States 

At first glance, “Roll, Jordan, Roll” clearly appears to be a Christian song, not a slave song. The title is the first indication of the biblical roots of the song. The Jordan River holds a significance in the biblical tradition as “a pivotal motif in Israelite self-understanding (Deut 31:13)” (Schowalter). By crossing the river, the enslaved Israelites escaped the oppression of the Egyptians and became a free people under God. “Roll, Jordan, Roll” again alludes to the biblical symbolism of the Jordan River in the lyric, “Oh my soul arise in Heaven, Lord, For to yearde when Jordan roll”. In other words, the souls of the Israelites are destined for Heaven after they crossed the Jordan River. By successfully traversing the Jordan River, the Israelites achieved both physical and spiritual freedom, and “Roll, Jordan, Roll” makes allusions to both. Another lyric in the song which suggests Christian themes is, “Little chil’en, learn to fear de Lord, And let your days be long”. The “chil’en” are the Israelites, God’s children. Therefore, “Roll, Jordan, Roll” calls for the Israelites to be God-fearing people if they wish to endure in the Promised Land, past the Jordan River. Similar allusions to the Old Testament are made throughout “Roll, Jordan, Roll”, contributing to the Christian story of freedom and redemption the song tells. Although Charles Wesley originally wrote “Roll, Jordan, Roll” as a song for Christians to sing as a form of worship, American slaves adopted the spiritual as their own. Through the appropriation of the song, it began to tell a new story, for Wesley did not intend for “Roll, Jordan, Roll” to become a critique of slavery in America.

“Roll, Jordan, Roll” is “one of the foundational texts of the spirituals tradition” (Powers), despite its beginnings as a Christian song. How did a distinctly religious song become synonymous with American slavery? During the nineteenth century, “Protestant clergymen began to defend the institution [of slavery], invoking a Christian hierarchy in which slaves were bound to obey their masters” (Sambol-Tosoco). As a consequence, slave-owners introduced music of the Christian tradition to their slaves, in hopes of reinforcing the power dynamic between slave and master. By these means, “Roll, Jordan, Roll” became a song of the slaves. However, as W.E.B. Du Bois asserts in The Souls of Black Folk: 

“The things evidently borrowed from the surrounding world undergo characteristic change when they enter the mouth of the slave” (212).

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The enslaved and oppressed people in “Roll, Jordan, Roll” were no longer the Israelites of the Hebrew Bible; the “chil’en” came to represent the enslaved African-Americans. Although there was no actual river the slaves needed to cross to achieve their freedom, the notion of crossing the Jordan River was tantamount to striving for freedom from enslavement. Even though the melody and lyrics did not change when the slaves adopted the spiritual, the power relationship emphasized in the sorrow song shifted in meaning. In order to survive, the slaves had to fear and obey their masters in the same way the Israelites had to fear God. The meaning behind “Roll, Jordan, Roll” became concrete, less metaphysical, and the sorrow song’s story transformed into a critique of slavery.

Slavery arose out of a myth of civilization. Since the Age of Exploration and the Enlightenment, Europe has seen herself as the epitome of civilization. As civilized people, Europeans took it upon themselves to bring civilization to other, less “civilized”, lands. The myth they believed was that civilization and progress frees people from their savagery. Ta-Nehisi Coates, the contemporary counterpart of Du Bois, argues:

“Nations seem to require myth…The dark continent has never been South of the Sahara, but South of Minsk and East of Aachen in the jungles of the European soul” (Coates 6).

Among the repercussions of this myth was the enslavement of Africa. Since Africans were the most unfamiliar to Europeans in race, dress, and tradition, they became the embodiment of savagery.  The spiritual “Roll, Jordan, Roll” challenges the idea that civilization frees its people because at its core, the sorrow song is a call for freedom. The slaves who Europeans brought to America from Africa, and the subsequent generations of slaves they bore, had no voice in the wider society. However, they had a voice in the fields through their singing. Therefore, they voiced their desire for release and their despair through spirituals:

“They are the music of an unhappy people, of the children of disappointment; they tell of death and suffering and unvoiced longing towards a truer world, of misty wanderings and hidden ways” (Du Bois 207).

Civilization did not free the slaves from their ‘savagery’; it placed them under the control of other humans- who understood themselves to be superior and worthy of dominance. The myth of civilization essentially boils down to the idea that there is a difference between civilized people and savages. The imagined power dynamic is essentially the same as the one featured in Kingsnorth and Hine’s Uncivilization Manifesto, which is between humans and nature. In both cases, the myth “is built upon the stories we have constructed about our genius, our indestructibility, our manifest destiny as a chosen species [or race]” (11). However, “Roll, Jordan, Roll” does more than challenge the notion of savagery, it offers up a new story of an enduring strength and power among the slaves.

The Sorrow songs, including “Roll, Jordan, Roll”, confront the existing myth of civilization by emphasizing how detrimental the imposition of civilization has been on the Africans who were displaced to the Americas and forced into slavery. There is a duality to the slave songs though. They are not merely stories challenging the myth of the supremacy of the West through telling the horrors of slavery. “Roll, Jordan, Roll”, similarly to many other slave spirituals, fosters a sense of unity and identity amongst slaves. Music has a fantastic ability to unite people because each voice brings its own sound and interpretation to the song. When a song is sung by a group, singing brings them all together and creates something beautiful and powerful. There is a particular scene in the renowned 2013 film Twelve Years a Slave which emphasizes both the new story told by “Roll, Jordan, Roll” and how effective music is in bringing people together.

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Soloman Northrup, the protagonist of Twelve Years a Slave, was not born into slavery. Rather, he had been abducted from the North and sold into slavery by those who continued to believe in the myth of civilized people – the myth the Europeans were inherently superior to others. Although the Northern states were not innocent and still propagated myths of civilization, they had begun to challenge the notion of slavery by making it illegal. As a consequence of his past, Northrup struggled to come to terms with his new status as a slave. However, there is a scene in the film where a group of slaves begin to sing an adaption of the song “Roll, Jordan, Roll” and at this moment, Northrup understood. He finally understood he was a slave because white people decided he was inferior, understood that slaves used music to challenge the notion they were inferior people, and understood the new message of the Christian spiritual, unique to the American slaves.

“Northrup at first resists, but finally joins in, his voice growing stronger as he blues the notes in the style that slaves invented…a sound of pained acceptance but also a tool of empowerment within the system designed to dehumanize him” (Powers).

The performance of “Roll, Jordan, Roll” fostered a sense of human connection between the slaves in Twelve Years a Slave and for the first time, Northrup felt it too. As a consequence, Northrup felt their pain, and their power, through the words of the song.

Throughout the subversion of “Roll, Jordan, Roll”, the lyrics and melody have not changed. However, the sentiment behind them and the story they tell has. The original was a Christian song of worship, but the slaves’ song was a critique of slavery. However, as the meaning changed, a tension developed between the song itself and the performance of it. The sorrow song’s words express a desire for freedom and escape from subservience, but the performance communicates a sense of hope and power. Du Bois stresses the dichotomy within the slave songs, claiming “Through all the sorrow of the Sorrow Songs there breathes a hope- a hope in the ultimate justice of things” (213). The power of “Roll, Jordan, Roll” as a critique of slavery originates in the lyrics, but its power as a message of hope comes from the performance of the spiritual by the enslaved African-Americans.



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