Go Down, Moses

Album: Natalie Merchant (2014)
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  • This was inspired by Hurricane Katrina and its devastating aftermath, particularly for the people of New Orleans who remained in peril as the federal government sat on its hands.

    Merchant was living in Spain when the tsunami swept through the Gulf Coast of the US, decimating areas of Louisiana, Mississippi, and Alabama. She told The Diane Rehm Show: "Along with everyone else, I watched in horror as the hundred thousand people who were remaining in New Orleans were left to fend for themselves. And that trauma and aftermath is what I write about in the song. Even years and years after I can't imagine that the trauma that people experienced in that city on that day and the subsequent weeks will ever leave them. So, you know, I don't consider this dated or topical of - it's not of another time. It's in the present for those people."
  • This features guest vocals from gospel singer Corliss Stafford. Merchant said: "When Corliss is singing at the end, she captures all that hopelessness and desperation and fear that I found in the faces of the people that I've studied in photographs and film. And the incident that was really the most disturbing to me of everything I read was the Danziger Bridge incident when the New Orleans police officers... opened fire on a group of civilians who were just trying to get across the bridge to get food. And some of them were teenage boys. And their mother - many of them were related, cousins. They injured four and they killed two."
  • Go down, go down, Moses,
    go down to the city of New Orleans.
    Go part the muddy water.
    Let your people cross over.

    The lyrics refer to the biblical account of Moses parting the Red Sea in Exodus 14. Under God's orders, Moses had just convinced the Pharaoh to release the Israelite slaves, but he soon changed his mind and sent the Egyptians to reclaim them. The Israelites were distraught as their captors were hot on their trail, but Moses parted the sea so they could safely escape. When the Egyptians tried to cross, the water collapsed and drowned them. Through the biblical allusion, Merchant is pleading for mercy on behalf of the people of New Orleans.

    "I sing part the muddy water and let your people cross over," Merchant explained. "It's talking about how people - so many people I saw the day after in film footage were praying, and praying for some kind of deliverance, some kind of miracle probably to save them."

    "Go Down Moses" - or "Oh! Let My People Go" - is also the name of a spiritual about Moses demanding the release of the Israelites. It was first recorded during the American Civil War to express the plight of the Southern slaves.
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