A Bold Spirit

All God’s Chillun Got Wings!

I got a robe, You got a robe,

All o’ God’s chillun got a robe

When I get to heab’n I’m goin’ to put on my robe,

I’m goin’ to shout all ovah God’s Heab’n. 

Everybody talkin’ ‘bout heab’n ain’t goin’ dere; Heab’n

I’m goin’ to shout all ovah God’s Heab’n

I got-a wings, You got-a wings, 

All o’ God’s chillun got-a wings

When I get to heab’n I’m goin’ to put on my wings,

I’m goin’ to fly all ovah God’s Heab’n.

Everybody talkin’ ‘bout heab’n ain’t goin’ dere; Heab’n

I’m goin’ to fly all ovah God’s Heab’n.

I got a harp, You got a harp,

All o’ God’s chillun got a harp

When I get to heab’n I’m goin’ to take up my harp,

I’m goin’ to play all ovah God’s Heab’n. 

Everybody talkin’ ‘bout heab’n ain’t goin’ dere; Heab’n

I’m goin’ to play all ovah God’s Heab’n

I got shoes, You got shoes,

All o’ God’s chillun got shoes

When I get to heab’n I’m goin’ to put on my shoes,

I’m goin’ to walk all ovah God’s Heab’n. 

Everybody talkin’ ‘bout heab’n ain’t goin’ dere; Heab’n

I’m goin’ to walk all ovah God’s Heab’n

“This is an authentic song of protest” (Thurman). 

During the Antebellum period, white pastors and other such church leaders would teach about how to get to heaven. To the enslaved, they would teach “be good to the master and they [the slave owner] will carry you to heaven” (Chenu). In this depiction of heaven, there was a separation, essentially, a heaven for the master and separate, different, heaven for the slave. This, of course, contradicts the teaching of Christianity that there is only one God. There cannot be two heavens and one God, so the slaves came to the conclusion “I am having my hell now and when I die, I shall go to heaven. The master is having his heaven now and when he dies, he shall go to hell” (Thurman). 

“To the exploited, heaven is the antithesis of earth” (Chenu). In heaven, there is no pain, no suffering. No families are torn apart. There is no death, no work. In short, heaven represented all the things the slave had to look forward to. “The enslaved looked to the next world in order to forget their present miseries” (Chenu). The slave, denied shoes, clothes, and dignity, would receive all of that in heaven. “The value as a person would be expressed by the opulence of the slaves’ new clothing” (Chenu). 

The text of this spiritual describes everything denied to the slave while on earth as something he will achieve in heaven.  This is a song “sung in anticipation of a time  when there shall be no slave row in the church, no gallery set aside for the slave, no special place, no segregation, no badge of racial and social stigma, but complete freedom of movement” (Thurman). The line “everybody talkin’ ‘bout heaven ain’t going there” refers to the slave owner, who regarded himself as “righteous.” He preaches about Heaven, but the slaves were certain that the injustice the master created would not go unpunished. 

The first time I came across this song was when I was singing in the Campbell University Choir in Buies Creek, North Carolina. Under the direction of Dr. Philip Morrow, we sang at least one spiritual on each program.  That semester, we did Robert Shaw’s arrangement called I Got Shoes. I remember loving the rhythm and the energy, but not liking the text. This arrangement closely follows J. Rosamond Johnson’s prescription of the original text and I didn’t understand the cultural significance of the Negro vernacular as I do now. I now feel that it is important to understand the oral tradition in spirituals. These were people who weren’t allowed to be educated. They were peoples who came from different tribes and nations and were forced into the shared experience of slavery. Their languages were stolen from them and so they pronounced the words as they heard them.

Notable Arrangements and Performances

I Got a Robe arranged by Moses Hogan* for SATB and solo voice

I Got a Robe – Moses Hogan (with music score) High Quality

I Got a Robe from Feel The Spirit arranged by John Rutter for SATB and solo voice

Feel the Spirit: III. I got a robe

I Got Shoes arranged by Robert Shaw for SATB 

04 I Got Shoes – Robert Shaw Chorale

All God’s Chillun Got Wings arranged by J. Rosamond Johnson* for solo voice and piano

All Gods Chillin Got Wings (Negro Spiritual)

All God’s Children Got a Song arranged by L. E. Bolden* for solo voice and piano

(Recording coming)

*African American Composer

Sources:

Thurman, Howard, and Howard Thurman. Deep River ; and, the Negro Spiritual Speaks of Life and Death. Friends United Press, 1975.

Chenu, Bruno. The Trouble I’ve Seen: The Big Book of Negro Spirituals. Judson Press, 2003.

1873-1954., Johnson, J. Rosamond (John Rosamond), et al. The Books of American Negro Spirituals: Including The Book of American Negro Spirituals and the Second Book of Negro Spirituals. Da Capo Press, 1926.

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