O Let My People Go

For ten or twenty, thirty years or more
the song was sung before the Civil War

by southern slaves in secret. First a call,
and then a sung response that came from all

around, “O let my people go!” And then
another voice, another poet, sang

out still another call, “Tell King Pharaoh!”
And then, “This world’s a wilderness of woe…”

“O let my people go!” Old Lincoln heard
the sad song sung and gave the legal word:

Abolish evil slavery first here,
and finally across the land. For where

no freedom is for some, at risk we all
will be. Each one must listen for the call:

to set each prisoner free.

– Verse “O Let My People Go” by Steve Shoemaker, Urbana, IL, October 23, 2013

Spirituals! (The first one published in 1861, “O Let My People Go,” was transcribed by a YMCA missionary sent to help escaped slaves at Fort Monroe. –Dena J. Epstein, “Sinful Tunes and Spirituals: Black Folk Music to the Civil War,” Univ of Illinois Press, 1977, 2003.)

Editor’s Note: Harriet Tubman was the Moses of the Underground Railroad.