Poem of the Week |

Let My People Go – Again and Again and Again

The ancient phrase has inspired Jews for millennia and black Americans for more than a century and a half.

Vivian Eden
Vivian Eden
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Illuminated 'Let my people go' in a 14th century Spanish Haggadah, Rylands Collection, University of Manchester.
Illuminated 'Let my people go' in a 14th century Spanish Haggadah, Rylands Collection, University of Manchester.
Vivian Eden
Vivian Eden

Go Down, Moses

African-American, traditional

When Israel was in Egypt’s land,
Let my people go!
Oppressed so hard they could not stand,
Let my people go!

Refrain:

Go down, Moses,
way down in Egypt land,
tell old Pharaoh
to let my people go!

Silent 'Let my people go:' Charles de Rochefort as Pharaoh and Theodore Roberts as Moses in 'The Ten Commandments,' directed by Cecil B. DeMille, 1923.

"Thus spoke the Lord,” bold Moses said,
Let my people go!
"If not I'll smite your first-born dead!"
Let my people go!

Refrain

Your foes shall not before you stand,
Let my people go!
and you'll possess fair Canaan's land
Let my people go!

Refrain

You'll not get lost in the wilderness
Let my people go!
with a lighted candle in your breast.
Let my people go!

Refrain

The Passover Haggadah read at the seder urges us to consider ourselves as having personally come out of Egypt and to tell the story to our children in every generation.

However, the Haggadah tells the story in a way that isn’t easy for small children to understand, so some families resort to stratagems, like staging pageants with a doll as Baby Moses, or incorporating songs, like this one, in plain language.

“Go Down Moses” is based on Exodus 7:15-16: God tells Moses, “Get thee unto Pharaoh And thou shalt say unto him: The LORD, the God of the Hebrews, hath sent me unto thee, saying: Let My people go.”

Extrapolating from the situation of the Hebrew slaves in Egypt to the black slaves in the American South was an easy step.

Originally known as “The Song of the Contrabands” (escaped slaves), it was first published as sheet music in 1862. Its formal properties make the song easy to remember: In each stanza lines 1 and 3 rhyme and lines 2 and 4 are “Let my people go,” a call and response pattern common in black churches – the preacher’s line varies and the congregation’s response is constant. The refrain is unrhymed but repeats: “Let my people go!” Any little kid can master this in minutes.

Though hymnals have additional verses for use in worship, the non-denominational versions best known to Jewish families and imported into seders are those recorded by mid-20th century stars like Louis Armstrong, Marion Anderson, Pete Seeger and Paul Robeson.

The link between black history and Jewish history, as condensed into the song, made a great impression on many American Jewish young people and some community leaders or Socialist-Zionist persuasions) of the late 1950s and early 1960s, who were involved in the Civil Rights movement and subsequently the campaign for Soviet Jewry - which chose as its slogan “Let my people go.”

Ava DuVernay’s film “Selma,” centered on the figure of Dr. Martin Luther King, has recently brought the Civil Rights movement to the attention of a new generation. Some complain the film does not give enough credit to the white contribution and in particular the Jewish contribution but others argue that the primary importance of the movement was black self-empowerment.

Happy holiday to all.

*Musing: What responsibilities accompany the celebration of freedom for men, women and children?

*Bonus: Paul Robeson sings “Go Down Moses

The Passover Haggadah http://www.haaretz.com/jewish-world/passover/1.585589 read at the seder urges us to consider ourselves as having personally come out of Egypt and to tell the story to our children in every generation.

However, the Haggadah tells the story in a way that isn’t easy for small children to understand, so some families resort to stratagems, like staging pageants with a doll as Baby Moses, or incorporating songs, like this one, in plain language.

“Go Down Moses” is based on Exodus 7:15-16 http://www.mechon-mamre.org/p/pt/pt0207.htm: God tells Moses, “Get thee unto Pharaoh And thou shalt say unto him: The LORD, the God of the Hebrews, hath sent me unto thee, saying: Let My people go.”

Extrapolating from the situation of the Hebrew slaves in Egypt to the black slaves in the American South was an easy step.

Originally known as “The Song of the Contrabands” (escaped slaves), it was first published as sheet music in 1862. Its formal properties make the song easy to remember: In each stanza lines 1 and 3 rhyme and lines 2 and 4 are “Let my people go,” a call and response pattern common in black churches – the preacher’s line varies and the congregation’s response is constant. The refrain is unrhymed but repeats: “Let my people go!” Any little kid can master this in minutes.

Though hymnals have additional verses for use in worship, the non-denominational versions best known to Jewish families and imported into seders are those recorded by mid-20th century stars like Louis Armstrong http://www.haaretz.com/news/then-armstrong-said-take-a-solo-1.171778, Marion Anderson, Pete Seeger http://www.haaretz.com/life/arts-leisure/.premium-1.571056 and Paul Robeson http://www.haaretz.com/life/books/he-pounded-the-table-with-love-1.77367.

The link between black history and Jewish history, as condensed into the song, made a great impression on many American Jewish young people and some community leaders http://www.haaretz.com/jewish-world/the-jewish-thinker/.premium-1.637752 or Socialist-Zionist persuasions) of the late 1950s and early 1960s, who were involved in the Civil Rights movement and subsequently the campaign for Soviet Jewry http://www.haaretz.com/st/c/prod/eng/25yrs_russ_img/ – which chose as its slogan “Let my people go.”

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