Louis Armstrong’s 1956 recording and release of the song, “Go Down, Moses” builds upon hundreds of years of Black protest. Standing up to the racist and often limiting strategies of white elites, whether in government or music, releasing this song was a seminal moment in the Black protest music canon.
Negro spirituals are religious songs sung by Black folks, combining the spiritual and religious themes of Christian music taught and the hardships and trauma of being a Black person in the United States. “Go Down, Moses” is an enduring song because of its simple, relatable, and religious qualities.
In Armstrong’s iteration, the lyrics sing of a story of God telling Moses to go down to Egypt and let his people free from imprisonment. The spiritual makes a clear connection between this Jewish experience, imprisoned in Egypt, to the Black experience in America.
Much of the song features call-and-response, a fairly common strategy for protest music. It adds to the song’s motivating energy and creates a sense of community with the folks asking to be let go. The whole song, as with negro spirituals in general, seems to create community amongst oppressed peoples, to bring their power together to demand better living circumstances. Adding to this feeling of community is the song’s refrain-based lyrics. Despite a few variations, most of the song’s lyrics are repeated multiple times, and the lyrics are sung by Armstrong at a pace that allows for easy memorization.
Armstrong’s trumpet is not a consistent presence in the song, rather jumping in at certain points to play an emphasizing role. The most notable section is at the very end of the song, when he spouts a high-pitched burst on the trumpet, an exclamation point at the end of an emotionally evocative song. It adds a personable element to the song, as if Armstrong is keeping much of the spiritual the song, but leaving his mark on it in certain ways.
While this doesn’t necessarily relate to what Armstrong had in mind, there’s an animation of the video on YouTube that gives visuals to much of what Armstrong was singing. The fact that Armstrong’s voice and personality is de-centered in the videos isn’t productive, but the video provides an image of the people that need to be let go, as well as an image of the ruling class.
But all in all, the song’s power comes from the fact that it’s been sung countless times. And as long as marginalized people continue to be traumatized and pushed to the edges of society, the song will have power.
Another aspect of the song’s importance to the Black music canon is the fact that Louis Armstrong was one of the most celebrated artists of the 20th century. No collection of records is complete without his work.. Armstrong did well to take his power, that of a world-renowned musician, and use it to speak up for those that could not. This iteration of “Go Down, Moses” is especially impactful because of that — most Black artists were instructed to leave politics and social commentaries out of their music, because their white audiences couldn’t handle it.
Additionally, the song harkens back to a time when Black folks had to be clandestine about their songs; Whites were fearful of their music and sought to silence Black music. This song is a testament to refusing to be silent in the face of oppression and violence.
His willingness to upset the social order and bring a Negro spiritual to the mainstream is daring and important to remember. Louis Armstrong’s performance of “Go Down, Moses” will stay relevant for centuries to come, a testament to spirituality’s empowering nature.