Title: Didn’t Old Pharaoh Get Lost
Artist: Ruth Starr Rose
Size: 13.5″ x 16″
Credit: Gift of the Harmon Foundation
Description: In the foreground, there is a man leading a line of people (roughly twenty men and women) through a large body of water that has been split in half to show off the dry sea bed with sea stars and a crab visible. The man leading in the front is holding his arm upwards towards the top left where an angel is blowing a horn and a light is shining down from the angel to the man. To the left of the man is a demon being scared off over the water. To the right of the man and the line of people is an angel wearing a diving helmet, with their arms and wings slightly outstretched as if they are keeping back the water from drowning the people. Behind the angel with the diving helmet is a riverboat with people on it. In the background, there is another line of people, coming from behind and next to two large pyramids. The second line of people are in the midst of being swallowed up by the water, in particular, a large circular wave.
“Didn’t Old Pharaoh Get Lost” is an African American spiritual based on the story of the Parting of the Red Sea in Exodus 14. In this story, Moses leads the Israelites out of Egypt and to the Promised Land. As they go through the desert and reach the Red Sea, the Pharaoh and his men pursue Moses and the Israelites. Once at the Red Sea, God tells Moses to raise his staff and hand and to divide the water so that the fleeing Israelites could walk across the dry land. The angel of God, who had originally been leading Moses, draws back to follow up after the Israelites and puts a barrier between them and the Pharaoh’s army.
Once in position, Moses does as God told him and uses his hand and staff to part the Red Sea. As the Pharaoh and his men attempt to chase after them, God slows the Egyptians down in order to allow Moses to get people to the other side. Eventually, God told Moses to once again stretch his hand out to cause the waters to flow back and when they did, the Pharaoh’s army was consumed by the water and left no survivors. On the other side, Moses and the Israelites were able to get to freedom and they saw that if they had faith in their God, he would protect them.
The spiritual itself recounts the entire story through a series of verses. In a 1925 collection of spirituals, verses eight and nine appear to be where Ruth Starr Rose took the most inspiration:
“Den Moses said to Israel,
As dey stood along de Shore
‘Yo’ enemies you see today,
You’ll never see no more.’
Didn’t old Pharaoh get los’, get los’, get los’
Didn’t old Pharaoh get los’ in de Red Sea
Den down came raging Pharaoh,
Dat you may plainly see,
Old Pharaoh an’ his host
Got los’ in de Red Sea”
“Didn’t Old Pharaoh Get Lost.” Golden Gate Quartet. August 2, 2018. Video, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xrsYCLSlQAc.
Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, Jean Blackwell Hutson Research and Reference Division, The New York Public Library. “The Book of American Negro Spirituals” New York Public Library Digital Collections. https://digitalcollections.nypl.org/items/6a771c60-bbff-0134-7046-00505686a51c