From the Contrabands to the Caucasus

It’s rare for a song to travel, untranslated, across continents, races and centuries, and to find itself widely cherished and beautifully sung in its new home. It’s extra surprising when long distance success is powered by one tiny word: go. In two different disguises.

Short, commonplace words are easy to misjudge when you sing in a foreign language. You can tip a whole song off-balance by putting too much or too little shape and stress into the little words.

I’d like you to try an experiment. An experiment with go.

It’s hard to imagine a situation where Let my people go would trip off the tongue, so think of yourself as a wealthy medieval landowner for a moment. It’s harvest-time. A local baron has kidnapped 9 of your agricultural labourers  You ride over to his castle, stride into his great hall and command: Let my people go. Get in character and say the phrase out loud a couple of times. How does it feel in your mouth? I’d guess that your tone is strong and exasperated. You expect your labourers to be freed immediately. You shape the word go at the front of your mouth. It’s a quick, forceful, efficient sound. You’re confident of success. No time to waste. No doubt in your mind.

Now imagine this: you’ve been asked to voice God for a film. Your wealthy landowner had power, but now you’re omnipotence itself. Try giving the command: Let my people go in an all-powerful God voice. You form the word go differently, don’t you? I’d guess that go has expanded to fill your whole mouth. It’s rounded and it resonates. Your imagination has shaped the word anew.

Finally, imagine yourself as a member of a long-oppressed tribe. You’re pleading for your people’s freedom. You are proud, but you have no power. You’re desperate, but not hopeful. How do you say Let my people go now? I’d expect go to fill your whole mouth, not with the power of God’s voice, but with despair. I’d expect it to feel heavier and sadder.

As Go Down, Moses is a call and response song, you’ll hear the go of Let my people go move between the soloist’s powerful voice-of-God imagining and the choir’s voice of the powerless Israelites. It’s a Russian choir, channelling Louis Armstrong:

The full, round English o of go, old, Moses, Pharaoh, bold, and spoke is an easy, pleasing sound for Russian speakers to produce. The slightly heavier tinge of the Russian l in let and people adds to the gravitas of the song. The clear musical structure of Go Down, Moses helps the choir to place the perfect stress on each English word. They’re left free to enjoy themselves and to sound wonderful while they do so.

Why does this English-language song appeal so strongly to the people of Russia? As Paul Robeson put it in 1931, after he’d introduced Go Down, Moses to the Soviet people: ‘The Russians have experienced many of the same things the American Negroes have experienced. They were both serfs and in the music there is the same note of melancholy, touched with mysticism.’

When you remember that Go down, Moses was written as a call and response spiritual before the American Civil War and sung by the Contrabands, you can understand why the Biblical phrase let my people go is a word-path deeply trodden into the music. It’s perfect for its purpose – imagine if the phrase had been Release my people or Set my people free. Try saying them out loud. The same meaning, but no real opportunity to pack emotion into the final word. They’re unsatisfying sounds. The pl sound at the end of people shuts the gate on the word. The ee at the end of free dissipates into thin air. Go, sung well, resonates with feeling.

The oppression of the Israelites and the wish for freedom expressed in Go Down, Moses was a powerful metaphor for African-Americans, experiencing slavery and oppression in the USA.  Moses’ mission down to Egypt’s land mirrors the harsher conditions for slaves down the Mississippi. Moses was the name by which Harriet Tubman, the Underground Railroad conductor was known.

When singer-activists Paul Robeson and Louis Armstrong popularised Go Down, Moses during the fight for civil rights, they were well aware of its extra layers of meaning, as were a significant proportion of their audience.

Go is such a small, unassuming word. It doesn’t often get a full, expansive starring role in a song, even when it’s in the chorus or title. Think of the short, spare go in Chuck Berry’s Johnny B. Goode, where its purpose is to express speed and youthful energy here. Or, in the Clash’s Should I Stay or Should I go, where go is powerful but controlled – expressing one man’s uncertainty:

Moses had gone down to Egypt’s Land repeatedly to plead for the freedom of his people, without success. In Go Down. Moses, the little word go has to step up to encompass the long awaited emancipation of a whole people. It takes its place at centre stage, puffs out its chest and expands into its role. Perfectly. In the line Let my people go, the word go itself holds pride of place, on the tonic of G, to which the song returns over and over again.

Before we talk about how to form the powerful, rounded o, of Let my people go, remember: part of its power comes from its contrast with the straightforward, everyday o of the go in the phrase Go down, Moses.  The go of go down suits the fact that Moses is being given an order by God. Here, go communicates intention and movement, not long-sought liberty. It’s short, practical and to the point – rounded out a little to stay within the reach of down and Moses, but not as resonant as the go of let my people go. Interestingly, even that functional go is on the note of G – to echo and to subtly remind us of its more prominent brother.

If you’re interested in how the mind controls the mouth, repeat your exasperated wealthy landowner go of Let my people go. Now say Go down, Moses. Even if you say the second go in character as a wealthy landowner, you shape your mouth slightly differently. The word has a different purpose. Your brain knows that. You focus on down not go. If you’re a native speaker of English, but not a language teacher, you’ve probably never heard of phrasal verbs, even though you use them all the time. We don’t study them in school, but hear them all around us as we grow up. They’re stitched into the fabric of our communication. We know that down is the important word in the phrase. We adjust our mouths accordingly.

In this song, when o needs to be a full and rounded sound, use the centre of your mouth as a sounding box. The go of let my people go finishes with your lips rounded, as if you were forming the letter w at the end of the word. The sound leaves your mouth like a smoke ring. That crucial bit of control also keeps the word go trapped in the centre of your mouth for as long as possible; to resonate. And to resonate with the meaning of the word in this song, of long imprisonment. If you open your mouth too wide at the end of let my people go, too much of the o‘s rounded power will disperse, too quickly. Most of its meaning will be lost as it flies out of your mouth.

Of course, Let My People Go doesn’t always have to be sung in the same style. Darondo does something different:

Of course, there are songs where go is the star, and its purpose is to fly. Go Down, Moses tells the story of lengthy captivity, where let go is a plea for freedom. The heavy word go carries the resentment of the long-imprisoned. But listen to Idina Menzel pouring a different intention into tiny go. In Let it Go from the Disney film Frozen, watch the animation and see Queen Elsa‘s hands illustrating the meaning behind the word each time Idina sings it. She’s setting herself free, so she fills the word go with exhilaration:

If you want to sing the go of Let it Go, remember that it needs to fly. This go isn’t rounded or enclosed in the middle of your mouth. It flows straight through without stopping. It’s pure energy. Don’t trap this go with the w that you used to slow down the go at the end of Let my people go. Open your mouth to let it escape easily. You need to let it fly free.  In Frozen’s Let it Go, the word go is the exuberant sound of newly discovered freedom. Help it on its way.

If English isn’t your first language: it’s always worth checking the meaning of an idiom in a song. The let go in Go Down, Moses contains the feeling of imprisonment and release. It’s a plea and it has the heaviness of discomfort to it. The let go of Let it Go is the shaking free of an impediment. It’s light and has a sense of forward movement and positivity to it. The subtle meaning of the idiom will affect the way you need to shape your mouth to form the words and what you need to be thinking while you sing them.

The go of Let My People Go is the same tiny word as the go of Let it Go, but they are playing different roles in each song, like actors. You need to shape them differently with your mouth when you sing them. To charge them with the appropriate energy.

Always check whether idioms or phrasal verbs are being used ironically in a song. Are you putting the right emphasis in the right place? Remember the snake and the woman using exactly the same phrasal verb to mean quite different things here. Don’t ever expect an English word or phrase to mean exactly what you expect. Always check. Otherwise you will sound disconcertingly ‘off’ when you sing. If you’re thinking of a word in a different way from the way the songwriter intended, your audience will hear the disjoint. Remember this.

By the way, although Paul Robeson was the first to tour the Soviet Union with Go Down, Moses, it is Louis Armstrong’s jazzier version that has taken deep root in the Russian imagination.  Louis Armstrong’s Go Down, Moses is so well-known that Sergei Bodrov had no hesitation in casually dropping it into his 1996 film Prisoner of the Mountains (Кавказский пленник). The film is a modern re-imagining of Tolstoy’s story A Prisoner in the Caucasus, set among the Chechens, rather than the Tartars, during the ruinous First Chechen War of 1994-96.

Any song that makes an appearance in film has to act surely and swiftly on the emotions of the audience. Bodrov knew that his Russian audience would immediately appreciate the enthusiasm of the captured soldiers when they tune into Go Down, Moses by chance on a broken radio.

With that acceptance as a given, Bodrov was able to build on it.  He subtly uses Go Down, Moses to question the true meaning of freedom and to subvert the expected balance of power between oppressors and oppressed. Throughout the old Soviet Union there are many peoples who feel themselves oppressed so hard they could not stand. The prisoners are Russian, but their captors are Chechens. None of them are free.

Prisoner of the Mountains is one of the most powerful and beautiful pieces of anti-war film-making that I’ve ever seen. I watched it with English subtitles here. I’d highly recommend it.

As I watched the Russian prisoners dancing to Go Down, Moses, I wondered what foreign song would have the same instant effect on British or American captive soldiers in a Hollywood film. And be immediately understood by the whole audience to have that effect. A shared cultural reference point in a foreign language. Maybe Gangnam Style? La Bamba? They’d certainly get the soldiers on their feet. But I can’t think of a foreign language song that would speak, through its sound alone, straight to the heart of an English speaking soldier or audience. Can you?

© Sing Better English, 2015


3 thoughts on “From the Contrabands to the Caucasus”

  1. Dear Ellaine,
    I always learn something new with your great articles.
    I love your choices of videos/songs and the message of acting within; such as wonderful and interesting concept.
    Thank you so much for sharing your great knowledge and writing,
    All the bests, ❤

    Liked by 2 people

  2. Fascinating discursive post, thanks. The most powerful version of Go Down, Moses that I’ve experienced is in Michael Tippett’s oratorio A Child of Our Time, itself a cry of anguish against the horrors of Nazi brutality. The composition is full of dischords, angularity and tortured phrases until suddenly the choir launch into this spiritual (Tippett’s equivalent of chorales for Bach’s sacred music). The abrupt change to tonality and conchords is very moving — as a choir member it’s hard to sing when your throat is choked up and tears are pouring down your cheeks. I’ve sung in two different performances separated by some four decades but the emotional effect was the same.


    1. Hi – thank you so much for adding that. I’m going to sit down quietly later on and listen to the Michael Tippett all through – I’ve just caught up with the few minutes before it leads into Go Down, Moses and I could feel the hair on the back of my neck standing up. I can imagine the music must lead you into some stark emotional places when you’re standing in the middle of all those voices, singing it.

      I was listening to this version If you know a better one, do let me know.


We'd love to know what you think

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.