Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 754
Lines 1–2: The opening lines tell Moses, leader of the Jews who were held as slaves by the Egyptians, to go deep into Egypt, the land of the oppressors. In the Old Testament book of Exodus, God chooses Moses to lead his people out of slavery. In this song, Egypt may stand for the “slave states” in the American South. This assumption is reinforced by use of the word “down” since slave-holding states were referred to as being “down south.” In this interpretation, Moses would be thought of as an abolitionist, one who helps slaves escape from the South, or as a political leader who fights for the abolition of slavery altogether.
Lines 3–4: The lyrics instruct Moses to speak to the Egyptian Pharaoh, demanding freedom for the Jews. In Exodus God commanded Moses to say “Let my people go” to the Pharaoh. God also told Moses to warn the Pharaoh ten times of ten different plagues that were sent by God to force the Egyptians to grant the Jews freedom. Because the Pharaoh failed to release the Jews from slavery after each plague except the last, Moses had to return to him repeatedly with the message, “Let my people go.” In this first stanza, the assonance of long o and the o sounds ow and oo that occur in the words “go,” “Moses,” “ole,” “Pharaoh,” “down,” and “to” creates a sustained melodic effect.
Lines 5–8: Lines five and seven elaborate on the story of Moses by describing the condition of the Jews. “Israel” refers to the Jews who are destined to live in the promised land of Israel, but are instead being kept as slaves by the Egyptian Pharaoh. They are oppressed, that is, burdened, to such an extent that they cannot stand, a condition that implies more than literally being on the point of collapse; it may also refer to the inability to stand up for one’s rights. Both the physical exhaustion and political subjection of the Jews reflect the conditions of African-American slaves. Forced to work from daybreak to sunset, underfed, and physically brutalized, slaves often found themselves physically unable to stand. If they tried to stand up for their rights, their actions were punished by whipping and sometimes by death. In addition to the description of the condition of the slaves, this stanza contains two repetitions of the chorus “Let my people go,” which creates the effect of a determined group of voices united in the struggle for freedom.
Lines 9–10: Each time he warned the Egyptians that they would suffer at the hands of God, Moses always said that he spoke the words of the Lord as God told him to do. Although Moses could have easily been put to death by the Pharaoh, he went as God’s messenger and identified himself each time as speaking God’s will. This took great courage, since he was addressing the Pharaoh, who was not only the most powerful man in Egypt, but who was also considered a god himself. Furthermore, the Egyptians did not include Moses’s God among the other deities that they worshipped besides the Pharaoh. Therefore, Moses would be considered extraordinarily rebellious by the Pharaoh. In light of this, the song rightly calls Moses “bold.” If the song is taken to be a metaphor for the African Americans quest for freedom, then the reference to a “bold Moses” reminds the listener that African-American slaves also needed great courage to escape from their captivity. If a slave were caught trying to escape or helping others escape, the punishment frequently was death. Line twelve repeats the chorus, creating a further feeling of brave rebellion.
Lines 11–12: Line eleven refers to the last plague sent by God to free the Jews. After nine attempts to convince the Pharaoh to free the Jewish slaves, God told Moses to warn the Pharaoh that every firstborn child in Egypt would be killed as a sign of God’s power and his displeasure that his chosen people were in bondage. When this plague causes the death of every first-born Egyptian child, including the Pharaoh’s son, the Pharaoh grants the Jews their freedom. The Pharaoh would not relent until he had suffered drastic punishment. Reference to this extreme measure may be read as a strong threat that slavery in America would not be tolerated forever; with the help of abolitionists, slavery would end, even if bloodshed were necessary to bring about justice. In the concluding chorus, “Let my people go,” the forceful demand for freedom again rings out.
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