The story of the Exodus of the Israelites from Egypt is common to both Jewish and Christian traditions. It is found in what Jews call the Torah and what Christians call the Old Testament. Whether you are a religious believer or not, this story is an important part of our culture and has been reflected in diverse ways in folk song and custom over the centuries.
Here are five songs that relate to the Passover story.
This African-American spiritual probably dates to the first half of the 1800s. It’s sung here by the Golden Gate Quartet, which has existed (with some changes in personnel, obviously) since 1934.
This is another spiritual with its roots in the era of American slavery. It was a favorite of Pete Seeger, who performed it often. In 2006, Bruce Springsteen included it on his album “We Shall Overcome - The Seeger Sessions,” which was a collection of songs popularized by Pete. The verses include both Old and New Testament references, and the arrangement has a jazzy, bluesy feel.
A Passover Seder is a community or family meal at which symbolic foods are eaten and the story of Exodus is retold with songs, readings, and games. Children are a particular focus of the Seder since the goal is to pass the stories and traditions on to them.
The youngest child often starts out by asking “why is this night different from all other nights?” and names four specific ways the Passover meal is eaten differently. This is that question, sung in Hebrew by the Hazzan, or cantor, of a Connecticut synagogue.
Scholars can debate about exactly how the symbolism of the song “Chad Gadya” (One Little Goat) relates to the Passover story. Some think the goat represents the Jewish people and the other characters the different nations and dynasties that have sought to control them. At any rate, it’s a favorite among children. Sung in a mixture of Aramaic and Hebrew, it’s a cumulative song, like “I Know an Old Lady Who Swallowed a Fly.” A father buys a goat for two coins. A cat eats the goat, a dog eats the cat, a stick beats the dog, a fire burns the stick, and so on. This is a 1950s recording of the great cantor Moishe Oysher, with a charming stop-motion animation featuring embroidered animals and emblematic Passover foods.
Here’s a more recent stage performance of the same song, complete with vocal acrobatics, a little dancing, and hot clarinet and trumpet solos.
This will be a difficult Passover for those who would ordinarily gather with extended family and friends. May you have a safe and peaceful holiday, and look forward to better times ahead. Chag Pesach Sameach.
Editor's Note: Many thanks to Steven Weintraub, scholar and practitioner of Jewish music, dance, and culture, for his help with this article.