Why do the words say, “I want to cross over into campground”? I've noticed before that “campground” doesn't really fit the rhythm very well. A one-syllable word would work better. For me, the image conjured up is that of tents, campfires, and lots of children running around. Almost like a refugee camp. (The fact that I have promised myself that I will never, ever again sleep on the ground in a tent might color my perceptions a bit.) Someone else might think of Civil War soldiers' camps. Why would persecuted people want to escape to something so . . . unrestful?
As is common for us moderns, we have lost track of the original meaning of the text. The singers don't want to go camping. Their lives are already hard enough! Most sources say that what's really being referred to are the “camp meetings” that slaves were sometimes allowed to attend, usually held in big tents. I ran across an excellent article that explains this concept very clearly:
“Campground” implies a place for camp meetings, a type of gathering that, even though illegal in some areas, served as a vehicle for slaves to commune and share their sorrows and hopes. These camp meetings were among the rare occasions during which slaves could actually experience feeling free for at least a little while through singing, playing instruments and sharing stories. Some of the lyrics most likely have a double meaning as well suggesting that the camp meeting they looked for was in Heaven, the place where they would truly be set free. (from http://americanstrings.blogspot.com/2012/01/deep-river.html.)
These gatherings were often overtly Christian and were also called “revival meetings.” They were extremely common in America even long after the Civil War, among whites and blacks. My mother could remember attending them during her childhood growing up in Florida during the 1920's and 30's.
There are actually three layers of meaning in this spiritual. The quotation above mentions two: the actual camp meetings and Heaven. A third layer is the idea of literal earthly freedom from slavery, with “Jordan” referring to the Ohio River, one of the boundaries between slave states and free. (If you know your Huckleberry Finn you'll remember that Huck and Jim, the escaped slave, head down the Mississippi to get to the mouth of the Ohio River, where they can get to a free state.) The feeling of freedom at the camp meetings would now translate into actual freedom.
“Deep River” has had a long, rich history since the end of slavery. Its most moving performance, perhaps, was by Marian Anderson, who sang it on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in 1939 after she had been forbidden to sing in Constitution Hall. The Chorale becomes a part of that history as we include it in our concert.