Many rivers have inspired songs, but none more so than the Jordan. While we have songs about many rivers—“The Blue Danube,” “Ol’ Man River,” “Song of the Volga Boatman,” “On the Banks of the Wabash Far Away,” “Swanee River,” “Beautiful Ohio”—the Jordan has found its way into tens, if not hundreds, of American folk songs, spirituals and hymns.a In particular, African Americans saw in the Jordan a symbol of deliverance and freedom:

“Roll, Jordan, roll; roll, Jordan, roll.

I want to go to heaven when I die

To hear the Jordan roll.”

“Roll, Jordan, Roll” was the first spiritual in America to appear in sheet music. It was published in Philadelphia in 1862. The incomparable voice of Marian Anderson carried this spiritual into the hearts of millions of people throughout the world.

Another moving spiritual is “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot”:

“I looked over Jordan and what did I see,

Coming for to carry me home?

A band of angels coming after me,

Coming for to carry me home.”

This same sense of spiritual transition can be found in “Wayfaring Stranger,” sung by early settlers in DeKalb County, Tennessee:

“I’m just a poor wayfaring stranger

a-trav’ling through this world of woe;

But there’s no sickness, toil nor

danger in that bright world to which I go.

I’m going there to see my father,

I’m going there no more to roam,

I’m just a-going over Jordan,

I’m just a going over home.”

Songs about rivers are generally written by people who acquire an intimate affection for their native landscape. In this respect, songs about the Jordan are different. Few, if any, of the songs about the Jordan were composed by people who had actually seen this river. The Jordan of the Bible was not so much a physical river as a symbol of spiritual yearning. To cross over the Jordan was to attain freedom in this life, or in the life to come.