Within this week’s parashah, which is Bo, we read of one of the times that God directs Moses to sally over and exhort Pharaoh to “Let My people go!” “!שַׁלַּ֥ח אֶת־עַמִּ֖י” God emphasizes God’s greater power in adding, “so that they may worship Me.”
Your correspondent is likely not the only one who comes away singing a song with that main theme. Interestingly, the song many of us think of, in the minor key, beginning “When Israel was in Egypt land…” which likely started life as a spiritual, is recorded in the Library of Congress as having been heard back in 1853. It was filed in that Library as a rallying anthem for the Contrabands at Fort Monroe in 1862, arranged by Horace Waters, under the Rev. L. C. Lockwood’s name (he was chaplain of the Contrabands, who were ex-slaves), who stated in a footnote that he had heard it in Virginia at least nine years earlier.
That particular song has been recorded in many versions. Most of us have heard the version recorded in 1942 by Paul Robeson, performer and social activist (1898-1976), his glorious bass voice resonating down to a G two octaves below middle C.
There was a recording made prior to that one, by the Tuskegee Institute Singers, recorded for Victor in 1914. Louis Armstrong recorded a swing version in 1958, and it has been “covered” by many others, including The Kelly Family in 1990. In films, Al Jolson sang it in Big Boy (1930), and Sidney Poitier sang it in Blackboard Jungle (1955).
Meanwhile, the exhortation to “Let My People Go” lives on in newer compositions as well. Youthful Donny Osmond in 1972 came out with an inspirational light rock recording. There was a different rock piece by the Winans released on vinyl in 1985 (it hit number one in Billboard in May 1986).
In an album released with the 1998 film Prince Of Egypt, Kirk Franklin sings a gospel/soul/R&B song, a sort of “inspirational” piece. And rap seems to have appropriated the imperative statement, mostly as a title or a general statement: there was a recording by PHAROAHE MONCH called “Let My People Go” in 2011; Matt Redman recorded a poignant rap in 2013 that he returned to in 2015 with Guvna B, calling for a fire in the dark and subsequent justice.
Also of note, The Rainmakers released “Let My People Go-Go” in 1986, a spunky version in which they mix timelines and mention everything from Joshua having the shofar blowers “beat me daddy eight to the bar” through Christianity in the fourth verse (which leaves your correspondent wondering whether there is yet a boogie-woogie version).
William Faulkner titled a novel Go Down, Moses (1942) after the song.
The Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., was born during Parashat Bo on January 15, 1929. He mentioned the Divine adjuration a few times himself.