Steal Away Meaning - The Message Behind The Spiritual Tuesday August 30 2022, 1:45 PM
Yona Marie
Singer, Songwriter, Producer.
Steal Away Meaning - The Message Behind The Spiritual

The Meaning Of "Steal Away To Jesus"

I always loved to sing this spiritual, and I had a vague idea about what it was telling me in the lyrics, but today I decided to do some research into the meaning(s) and the story behind the lyrics.

The song is meant to be presented in a slow, somber, but slightly uplifting tone, and the more you dig into the words, the more you'll understand why.

The chorus to this song really sums up the overall message with the lyrics:

"Steal away, steal away, steal away to Jesus! Steal away, steal away home. I ain't got long to stay here."

While it may be obvious that stealing away means to leave a place, it is to be noted that it means to quietly leave a place without being noticed or caught. This is important to take note of because of the point of view that the composer has.

It may seem dark because it is; the lyrics are sung from the viewpoint of a slave that is seeking freedom in the sweet release of death. More importantly, they are looking forward and the promise of being reunited with God in heaven. 


The Story Behind The Composer

Unline many lost names that can never be uncovered due to the fact that African Americans weren't often given their credit throughout history, this particular spiritual was written by well-known composer Wallace Willis.

Wallis was a Choctaw freedman that was a small group of emancipated individuals who were granted citizenship in the Choctaw Nation near Oklahoma. 

It is said that his works, including "Swing Low, Sweet Chariot" and "The Angels Are Coming" were heard by Reverend Alexander Reid sometime near the early 1870s.

Reverend then heard the well-known Fisk Jubilee Singers (established 1871) and decided that Willis should introduce his material to the group, which made history from there. 

While it seems like a lovely story, there are some claims that Willis would end up being credited for spirituals that composers who can never be uncovered actually wrote.

I would be surprised either way; it's already hard to find a solid account of Willis' work, which really just speaks to the injustices against people of color that were obviously rampant in the late 1800s. 

Message Within The Song

The song is written to be performed very slowly and sweetly, similar to another one of my favorites by the name of "Deep River".

It is also written in a major key, which really brings home the fact that while the lyrical content can be a bit somber, there is a calmness in the music.

To me, this song perfectly encompasses the "peace that passes all understanding" referenced in Philippians 4:6. It's that same tranquil peace that Jesus himself faced when he was on that cross, calm as ever.

The slaves were not falling victim to the sense of anxiety and heightened stress at this point, and they were calmly and quietly awaiting their journey to the promised land. 

Similar to other negro spirituals like "Wade In The Water", songs like there were said to be used as a code for the slaves to escape.

It is suggested by scholars that the line in the verse, for example, "My Lord, He calls me, He calls me by the thunder", is meant to be a double meaning for the suggestion that slaves should travel toward the Underground Railroad during storms for cover brought by the rain. 

Fisk Jubilee Singers' Recent Performance

The lyrics convey an impactful and reflective message on their own, but the composition of the melody and harmony throughout this piece is really something that is transcendent.

To this day, the Fisk Jubilee Singers at Fisk University are putting on stellar performances that can really help send you to the emotional space that Wallace Willis wanted you to feel down in your soul. 

Other Notable Performances Of Steal Away

As one of the greatest gospel singers of all time, Mahalia Jackson's rendition of "Steal Away" with Nat King Cole is both haunting and soul-stirring. Her deep, resonant voice and heartfelt delivery make her version an absolute classic.

The legendary actor, singer, and civil rights activist, Paul Robeson, delivered a powerful performance of "Steal Away." His deep, velvety voice adds a unique richness to the song, making it an unforgettable rendition.

A trailblazing gospel and blues singer, Sister Rosetta Tharpe, delivers a soulful and energetic version of "Steal Away." Her unique blend of gospel, blues, and rock influences adds a dynamic and captivating twist to the song.

Yona Marie

As a session singer, writer, and producer that has worked with over 300 clients to provide high-quality jingles, singles, and features, Yona spends her time creating and marketing new music and helpful resources for creators. Check out Yona’s latest releases on her Spotify, her Youtube and share if you like it!

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