STEAL AWAY: Songs of the Underground Railroad

Kim and Reggie Harris

Songs include:
Oh Freedom 3:20
No More Auction Block 2:10
Let Us Break Bread Together 3:15
Wade in the Water 3:35
Go Down Moses 4:01
Harriet Tubman / Steal Away 5:01
Now Let Me Fly 1:31
Sinner Please Don't Let This Harvest Pass 4:28
Trampin' 3:21
Following the Drinking Gourd 2:53
Deep River / Swing Low 4:36
Great Day 1:42
Heaven Is Less Than Fair 7:13
Free At Last 1:53
Ain't I A Woman 2:14
Steal Away (Reprise) 3:20

To download various sound files, including "Wade In The Water" please click on the Sounds & Video link at the bottom of this page.



In 1982 we were given an opportunity to present an assembly in several schools in Philadelphia, PA and chose the topic of the Underground Railroad, largely because Kim remembered a bit of info from a program she attended in 5th grade.

At that time, there was no way to know that our half hour presentation of songs and stories would so greatly influence our lives and uncover such a vibrant treasure of material.

On our own, and with the loving help of noted historian Charles Blockson, we began to gather some of the spirtuals that slaves used in their quest for freedom and, in 1984, we released "Music and the Underground Railroad"... our first recording.

We have, over the course of years, continued to explore this fascinating chapter in history... reading, researching, visiting sites, listening to the stories and gathering more information and songs, which we have been privileged to share with people all around the world!

The Underground Railroad, as we are fond of saying, was NOT a train... it was people... a rainbow coalition of various backrounds, beliefs, colors and creeds who, in a variety of ways, created a lifeline out of slavery in Pre-Civil War America.

The songs, beautiful... rich in spirit and texture, reveal the hope, power and ingenuity of an enslaved people who used their traditions, passion and resourses to express their faith, strengthen their relationships and communicate important information that led many of them to freedom!

We present these songs as contemporary artists of our time seeking to honor the tradition and spirit of the music through the prism of our own musical experience and evolution. We offer this work as a loving tribute to the courage of the travellers, conductors, agents, shepherds and crews of the Liberty Line and also, as a reminder, that the struggle for freedom equality and for the future, is now in our hands!

A song of joy and resolve often sung to celebrate the end of a journey to freedom. The code words darkness and glory were sometimes used to indicate places of refuge along the way. (darkness, closer to slavery... glory - closer to freedom)

Desperate to escape the whip, the degradation of the slave auction, famiy separation and inhumane conditions, this song most often would be sung under one's breath, out of earshot of master or overseer, as a statement of resolve or defiance.
Keyboards and Auctioneer's Voice: Conrad D.Krider
Female Slave: Kim Harris

A coded call for a secret meeting or gathering in the morning (at or before sunrise) to discuss issues of concern, plans of escape or for a time of prayer.

This is an absolute favorite of ours and one of the most requested songs in our repetoire. A spiritual of great power and hope that was also used to give practical reminders to fugitives ... travel near rivers and streams for cover, safety, food and direction.

Slaves understood the message of the Bible story of Moses leading his people to freedom in a way that slaveowners often overlooked. In a marvelous example of coded language, they could sing about this story right in front of the master. The name MOSES might refer to the biblical character or to a Conductor. (Harriet Tubman, John Brown or others) PHAROAH (the Slaveholder) would not expect ISRAEL (the slaves) to make an attempt to leave EGYPT (bondage) for the PROMISED LAND (freedom).

(Harriet Tubman Song ©1977 Walter Robinson - Shawnee Press Inc. Used by permission. Steal Away (TRAD)
HARRIET TUBMAN, one of the most famous UGRR conductors, made over 19 trips South after her own harrowing escape. She is believe to have freed about 300 people while inspiring thousands to action. This contemporary song is both a folk music "hit" and a fitting tribute. The "third verse ", which we added, was found in the autobiography written by Sara Bradford, is part of Harriet's special song that announced her arrival to potential Passengers. Slaves who decided to escape might sing Steal Away to alert family and friends of their intentions.
Bass: Joe Hammer

A number of slave stories talk about people from Africa who could fly. Along with the Bible story of Ezekial and the Wheel, these songs and stories reminded slaves that they had the right to think about, dream of and go to the Promised Land! (a place of freedom).

Planning and executing an escape was dangerous , difficult and frightening under the best of circumstances. The possibility of meeting death on John Brown's Trail was a vibrant and ever-present reality. On the eve of escape, this song of faith gave voice to the fears and the hope of those willing to risk all for freedom.

Most fugitives made their escapes by walking long distances... on their own. The journey was hard, but the prospect of reaching Heaven or home (a safe  place) kept the tired feet movin' even when the body or spirit was weak.
2nd guitar , acoustic leads and vocal: Greg Artzner
Harmonica and vocal: Terry Leonino

FOLLOW THE DRINKING GOURD (TRAD) ©1951 and renewed 1979 Folkways Music Publishing Inc.
The Drinking Gourd was a code for the Big Dipper. Fugitives used this clearly visible constellation to locate the North Star as they made their way over mountains, through valleys and across unfamiliar terrain. This "map song" contains both general and some specific directions, including a reminder to use moss to find the way North. ("Dead trees will show you the way!")

Rivers played an important role on the Freedom Road. An escaping slave would find more safety by rivers and streams than on the established roads.  "Crossing over Jordan" is another biblical reference to freedom from bondage. Harriet Tubman loved Swing Low. As she lay dying, she sang the song with her relatives gathered at her bedside.

This is a song of jubilation! Groups of Free Blacks and their supporters in churches, camp meetings and abolition societies would shout and sing in celebration when another of their people made it to freedom. A picnic or or feast would be held after a religious ceremony to welcome the righteous (escaped slaves) who had marched to Zion!
Drums: Dennis Tate

HEAVEN IS LESS THAN FAIR © 1984 Reggie and Kim Harris
We wrote this song after reading several slave narrative accounts   of those who gratefully remembered their flight to freedom while painfully missing the loved one's they had left behind. We included a variety of Underground Railroad passwords and codes. The song Children Go Where I Send Thee was used as an alert that a certain number of slaves were to make an escape. (1 by 1, 2 by 2,etc.)

One of the enduring lessons of the Freedom Train is that true freedom came as a result of great sacrifice, tireless vigilance, spirited resistence and clever cooperation. It was no accident that Dr. Martin Luther King Jr closed his I Have A Dream speech with the words of this spiritual.


Looking into African American history in Putnam County and imagining the lives of slaves and freed blacks in these small towns where we live today is a project full of surprises. Perhaps the biggest surprise is to realize how deeply African American experience and heritage has been woven into the history of Putnam County. It is surprising because it is so little in evidence today. Even though this part of New York played a pivotal role in the history of slavery, abolition and the civil rights movement, and even though 19th century New York State was the stage on which Sojourner Truth, John Brown, Harriet Tubman and other giants of our history acted, one would hardly know it judging from our lives here at the end of the century. There are very, very few people of color living in Putnam today, despite the fact that the county is located in one of the most racially diverse parts of the United States. Compared to Westchester, Dutchess, Orange and Rockland, Putnam County is racially homogenous, or if the word must be used, segregated. The African American population peaked here in the mid-nineteenth century, and then declined to almost nothing over the next century. And thereon hangs a tale.

School children in New York may learn about Harriet Tubman, but judging from my own memories of public school in Westchester, I doubt whether most are taught that the Underground Railroad passed through Manhattan, up the Hudson and North to Albany. And I'm sure they are not trained to ask the obvious question of why, when New York was supposed to have abolished slavery in 1799, it was still necessary in 1860 to have a secret conduit for slaves to escape through the State and into Canada.

New Yorkers, including me, think of ourselves as a relatively tolerant society and likely to support racial diversity as a cultural value. Yet historically, New York was the largest slave-owning colony and state in the North from 1630 through 1790, and the main bastion of slavery outside the South. It abolished slavery later than any other northern state except New Jersey, and even then only when it was considered unprofitable to maintain it.

The character of slavery in New York was different from slavery in the South. Northern slavery was influenced by the Dutch institution, which was more like white indentured servitude, more of an economic convenience than a racial ideology. The Dutch typically released their slaves after a certain period rather than viewing slavery as the permanent lot of blacks. Under English rule, slavery was more rigid and more permanent, but aspects of the earlier Dutch model survived. Most slaveholdings were small, consisting of only one to five slaves, who lived in their white owners' households on more intimate terms. There is evidence that northern whites and blacks may have known each other better and feared each other less than in the South. New York slaves were allowed, for example, to celebrate their cultural tradition in a carnival-like holiday called Pinksterfest adapted from the Dutch celebration of the Pentecost, at least until Albany outlawed it in 1811. But that didn't necessarily mean that Northern blacks were better off. Northern slaves living in white households were more isolated than their Southern counterparts living in slave quarters, and smaller Northern slaveholdings meant that black families were more often broken up. The slightly more flexible and socially palatable model of northern slavery made it economically very succcessful and inclined Dutch and English New Yorkers to defend it fiercely, and as a result its vestiges were terribly slow to die.

So although John Jay was proud of passing a state law to emancipate slaves in 1799, it was a half measure at best. The law was not only late in coming compared to other northern states, but in view of how thoroughly slavery was integrated into the state's economy, the law ensured it would take many decades for emancipation to take hold. The 1799 law abolished slavery through gradual manumission. Children born to a slave woman after July 4, 1799 (a date chosen to symbolize freedom) had to be registered to a slaveholder who took responsibility for the child's education. Failure to register was punishable by a fine and immediate freedom for the child. Those who remained slaves would have to devote their youth, as opposed to their entire lives, to slavery under the new law. They were to be freed automatically at age 28 for males and age 25 for females. Theoretically, all slaves would be free by July 4, 1827.

But cheating was rampant. Birthdates went unrecorded, so it was often unclear who was eligible for manumission and who was not. Sojourner Truth, who lived in slavery in Kingston, was such a case. Many children were sold into slavery in southern states to circumvent the law. This happened to Sojourner's son, and in a highly exceptional episode she sued successfully for his return. The New York State legislature moved to fight illegal southern slave traffic by enacting 1809 laws to recognize slave marriage, legitimize slave children and prevent the breakup of families, and also granted property rights and the right of trial by jury. Nevertheless, gradual emancipation tended to undermine black families. Not only did the New York slave system tend to force family members to live apart, but under gradual emancipation, three different degrees of freedom existed -- free, bound-to-service, and slave -- sometimes all within the same family.

That made it harder to keep families together, and made individuals more vulnerable. The practice of illegal trafficking southward continued long after slavery was officially supposed to be extinguished in 1827. A locally infamous case in mid-century Putnam County involved a white wife who lured her black husband south and actually sold him into slavery. Long into the 19th century, getting kidnapped and sold into southern slavery was a present danger for free blacks or blacks on their way to manumission in New York State.

Around 1850 the Fugitive Slave Law upheld southern slavecatchers' legal right to chase their prey into New York State and drag them back. Given the illegal traffic in freed blacks kidnapped from New York and sold in the South, it is no wonder that a long lifetime after state emancipation began, the effort to assert blacks' freedom in New York was still underground in 1860, up to the very brink of the Civil War. Harriet Tubman was at the center of a famous 1860 riot in Troy, New York, a stop on her Underground Railroad. Troy officials tried to enforce the Fugitive Slave Law in the case of a slave who escaped from Virginia, Charles Nalle. Nalle's own attorney betrayed him to his owner, who sent agents to Troy to retrieve him. Civil War was immanent, war sentiment was running high, and it caused a riot when a crowd tried to prevent Nalle's transfer by police. Harriet Tubman, about 40 at the time, got to the center of it by disguising herself as an elderly woman for whom people would make way. She grabbed Nalle by the wrist and the two ran a gauntlet of clubs and cudgels. Nalle was battered, but Tubman got him to a skiff and crossed the Hudson. He was arrested in West Troy, but the crowd followed him on a regular ferry and broke into the prison, braving pistol fire. Bloodied by now herself, Tubman put Nalle on a coach to a safe house in Schenectady. He was never caught after that.

This episode is exceptional because the crowd in Troy got behind Nalle, but it also illustrates the degree of everyday danger blacks in New York lived under even in mid-century. They were under constant threat from slavecatchers who had the sanction of the police and the courts, and from illegal slave traffickers who didn't need it. They had to develop survival mechanisms that enhanced their mobility. In Putnam and the surrounding counties, one of the main ones consisted of the river sloops that plied the Hudson. African Americans have a long maritime history. Shipping was one industry in which blacks managed to achieve some status and self-determination even during slavery. About 75% of the crews on the Hudson sloops in mid-century were black. They provided a support network for the Underground Railroad, and an informal transportation network for blacks when they needed it. Many stories survive of fugitive slaves or freed blacks who needed to disappear and were hidden amid the cargo of the river sloops.

As precarious as life was for African Americans in this part of New York State in the mid-19th century, it declined further. Their families and lives disrupted as emancipation played out over decades and freedom was slow to take hold, many blacks chose to stay on as servants to their old masters after 1827. But conditions did not improve after slavery. Freed blacks faced discrimination in housing and employment. The Civil War corresponded with rise of the industrial revolution in New York, and blacks were increasingly displaced by immigrant workers. The Cold Spring Foundry was a center of manufacturing for Civil War cannon, and at its height employed thousands of men -- so many that they had to hot-bunk their barracks. These populations were largely Irish and Italian, and their communities took root in Philipstown, but the Foundry did not employ blacks.

By 1900, the Foundry was in decline. Its rise meant that Putnam County's waterfront became one of the first to industrialize, but it happened too early in the long, slow unfolding of emancipation to allow freed New York blacks a foothold in it. Its fall meant that Putnam County reverted to a rural, agricultural economy. In the early decades of the 20th century those blacks who stayed in this part of New York state migrated away from rural towns to nearby cities with waterfront manufacturing -- Peekskill, Beacon, Newburg, Ossining. They found work there until the Depression closed the factories. Many stayed on and weathered the Depression, and their descendants after them.

This is one reason why Putnam stands out today as a pocket of homogeneity in an otherwise racially integrated region: blacks left Putnam County by attrition.. The County census numbers tell a poignant story as they register the numbers of people of color, taxed (freed) and untaxed (slaves), dwindling steadily from a high in the mid-19th century to single numbers around the turn of the century. But blacks were also actively kept out. After World War I the Ku Klux Klan became powerful in the midwest and expanded rapidly north and east, especially into rural areas where there were few blacks. There were open, active Klan cells in many towns in this area, including Fishkill and Nelsonville, until the middle of the 20th century, some say until the 1970s. Very little about their activity is documented, although it survives in the memory of Putnam county residents, and an oral history project is now underway to study its role in local racial and ethnic history.

New York State's African American heritage is rich. Its complexity mirrors our national experience, and reflects the best and the worst of our history. The Underground Railroad ran through here, and giants of the abolition and civil rights movements walked here. Ogres of slavery, oppression, discrimination and persecution also thrived here. As Putnam County celebrates its various Civil War observances this year, a glance at the broad outlines of our complex history over the last 135 years begins to answer the demographic question of how ours came to be a virtually all-white county. But it does not begin to answer the question of why it was a century after the Civil War before Jackie Robinson could break baseball's color bar, why a performance by Paul Robeson sparked the Peekskill Riots of 1949, why race riots broke out in Ossining High School in 1973, why a black cemetary in Southeast was bulldozed and blacktopped in 198_ with little outcry, why cross burnings are within the living memory of Putnam County residents, or why, at this very, very late date, we in Putnam have yet to open our communities sufficiently to establish any significant residency by people of color. I believe that how my generation of Putnam County residents copes with its inheritance of de facto segregation will be a key criterion -- perhaps the key criterion -- by which history will judge us 135 years from now.

STEAL AWAY: (Songs of the Underground Railroad)

Produced by Kim and Reggie Harris
All songs arranged and performed by Kim and Reggie Harris except as noted. ©1997 BROOKY BEAR MUSIC
Recorded by Skipp Tullen at Tullen Sound Recording, Morristown, NJ
Mixed and Edited by Skipp Tullen and Reggie Harris
Previously released tracks * recorded in 1984 at Chestnut Sound, Phila., PA Recorded by Chris D. Gately
Graphic Design and Layout: Ron Toelke and Associates
Cover Art: "Untitled" - Commissioned by Charles L. Blockson. Used by permission of the Blockson Afro American History Collection.
Photo: Tom Radcliffe, Point of View Studio, Takoma Park, MD
Our Very Special Thanks To: Vivien Niwes and our VNI family, Jim Musselman, Barbara Shalit, and to all who lovingly support us in our lives and in our work. You are community for us in every way!

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