Where Does This Phrase Come From?

I admit that the phrase is obscure. A number of years ago, I heard a funny, wonderful song entitled "Jordan is a Hard Road to Travel". I was happy enough just to enjoy the music. But the odd thing about grief is that it makes me think about things more deeply than perhaps I should. The only serious line in this song was the constant refrain about Jordan. Since I had my own hard road to travel, I began to wonder, what is Jordan?

After doing a little research on the Web, I uncovered very little of use:

Friday, May 27, 1864. Slept, or lay, very cold last night... Started about 6 o'clock from Lynchburg for Danville [Virginia], packed in some box cars. It is about 150 miles, and it took us 24 hours... What a painful night we passed! No sleep, no place to lie down nor scarcely to stand. No rations, and I think that Jordan is a hard road to travel.

I do not know the specifics of the terms, but I think you are right. Jordan refers to the line between freedom and slavery (generally the Jordan River).

James O. Horton
George Washington University.

The reference is probably to Jordan as the Promised Land for the children of Israel. It is an Old Testament motif that appeared in a great many African-American spirituals. For the enslaved, Jordan would have represented a life free from bondage and oppression. Less literally, Jordan also stood for spiritual freedom, freedom from the bondage of Satan and the heaviness of a godless life. For Jordan to be a hard road to travel suggests that getting to the Promised Land -- either an actual world of political freedom or a more figurative one of spiritual freedom -- is not easy, and requires much hard work.

Patrick Rael,
Bowdoin College

I had always assumed that, in this particular case, Mr. Gilbert was encouraging my great-great-grandfather to be steadfast in his anti-slavery views and to be determined to stay in Bloody Kansas where proslavery settlers were making things pretty "hot" for antislavery settlers. I believe it was a common expression for anyone with a cause who was facing adversity.

William Griffing