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Over time, southern slaves developed plantation songs that also carried secret messages. Only the slaves knew their meaning. It was through these songs that important information was passed along a system of communication throughout the South. Coded songs conveyed messages about rebellions or escapes through the Underground Railroad. They were also a way for the slave to “sass the Massa” without fear of retribution. The plantation owners and overseers never suspected their smiling chattel who sang such simple songs – or so they made themselves believe.
There was one final group of haunting melodies, rich with emotion, and deeply moving. They were songs of hope and anticipation. Some folks called them the sorrow songs. Eventually, they would come to be known as spirituals. They were the soul-cry of the black slave, longing for freedom. They were born in the fields, among the hoed rows of cotton and tobacco. They sprang to life among the salty wharves of the Atlantic harbor and the Mississippi bayou. These songs rose to heaven above the whine of the sawmill and the roar of the waterfalls that drove them. From the painful cries of the female slave enduring yet another violation by the master, these ballads arose. They issued forth from the sweat and heartache of a lifetime of unrewarded toil.