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Steal away, steal away

Steal away to Jesus!

Steal away, steal away home;

I ain’t got long to stay here.

Yesterday’s choir honored Junteenth by singing the African American spiritual, Steal Away, composed around 1862. Its yearning to make a radical change, in secrecy, smarts the senses, provokes shortness of breath, enhances identification. Repetitious lyrics and the melodic line afford rapid learning and lodge in the heart-memory. Such is my take on this spiritual, in my present circumstances.

Although Steal Away was composed by Wallace Willis, a field slave of a Choctaw freedman in the old Indian territory, Doaksville, Oklahoma, its widespread use among enslaved Africans is questioned by Frederick Douglass, freed slave and African American social reformer, and other current critics.

The spiritual’s use, as code for fugitives on the Underground Railroad, is also questioned as little evidence substantiates this claim. Douglass maintained only small groups planning escape to the North found courage in singing Steal Away. Such singing the white populace regarded as the “many silly things they do.”—Viewing them as less than human.

I ain’t got long to stay here.

So, the declaration concludes, impacted by strong metaphors: home: realm of freedom and eternal life; thunder and lightning: sources of dangerous energy; the trumpet: instrument of authority used in Old Testament for worship services, teaching, correction, and announcing war; call: a summons that demands immediate compliance, thunder, lightning, and green trees bending that suggest nature’s influence. At work here is the redemptive power of the Lord among sinners, falling short of the mark.

I include myself among them as I wait…

Steal away, steal away, steal away to Jesus,
Steal away, steal away home,
I ain’t got long to stay here.

So opens the Negro spiritual sung by the Fisk Jubilee Singers from Nashville’s Fisk University. Within its plaintive melody glints the souls of the oppressed.

The spiritual was first heard around 1862, sung by the enslaved Wallace Willis, sent by his Choctaw freedman owner to work at Oklahoma’s Spencer Academy, a boarding school for the forced assimilation of Choctaw boys. The listener was the school’s superintendent, the Presbyterian minister Alexander Reid, also a trained musician. He perceived this spiritual and others “Uncle Wallace” had composed as far superior to the repertoire that the Fisk Jubilee Singers were taking on tour at that time, and he later sent them copies. Acclaim met their performances in this country and abroad.

Whatever the origins of Steal Away, its lyrics speak of huge yearning for deliverance from oppression, only found in the saving power of Jesus.  

Whether the spiritual had been previously used by enslaved blacks as a code for escape or for secret meetings, whether remembered by “Uncle Wallace” from his experiences confined to his Mississippi plantation, I was unable to discover.

Still the heart-cry echoes of the afflicted around the world:

My Lord, He calls me
He calls me by the thunder
The trumpet sounds within-a my soul
I ain’t got long to stay here

You Tube’s three stanzas of the anthem, “Lift Every Voice and Sing” moved me deeply, its one hundred-year-lyrics still sung in Black Churches, in Black History Month seminars, and other events. The anthem’s vision speaks to those willing to listen: a plea for Liberty to the God of silent tears.

The dismal failure of the Civil War Post-Reconstruction in late nineteenth-century America compelled James Weldon Johnson, lawyer, school administrator, prolific writer, and poet in Jacksonville, Florida, to compose these lyrics. Tears flooded him after listening to his brother’s rendering them in the word-painting technique: the melding of images upon the soulful melody in A flat major, often used in spirituals.

“ Lift Every Voice and Sing” was first presented to honor the1900 visit of educator Booker T. Washington to the Black school, Stanton, where Johnson was principal. Those five hundred singers, many becoming teachers, carried the anthem with them, and taught other classrooms, which, in turn, spread this vision of hope.

In 1919, the NAACP proclaimed, “ Lift Every Voice and Sing” the Black National Anthem of America; it also spirited the1960s Civil Rights Movement led by Dr. Martin Luther King.

YouTube carries several versions of this stirring anthem.

Available on Amazon

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