Saturday, February 21, 2009

Dave Guard + John Stewart + The Boss + More: "Oh, Mary Don't You Weep"

I believe that there is one genuine and distinct difference between American sacred music and that of our European ancestors. In Europe, virtually all of the religiously-oriented music possesses a complexity born of its origins, whether in monasteries and cathedrals or churches or the garrets in which composers tended to live. The monks who wrote the Gregorian chant and the masses based on it were musical and harmonic geniuses, accomplishing a sense of mystery and reverence with about half of the notes in the chromatic scales that we use. And much of the rest of the continent's Christian music came from both trained musicians and the greatest composers in world history - think Bach's Mass in B Minor and Handel's Messiah and Schubert's "Ave Maria," to name a few of the high-profile examples.

Now America's rich heritage of religious music includes a good many of the European compositions, from the stately Anglican-Episcopal hymns like "Now Thank We All Our God" and "Praise To The Lord" and "Nearer My God To Thee" to Martin Luther's "A Mighty Fortress Is Our God" and many more.

But America engendered what we might term the "folk hymn" as well - compositions less complex and easier to sing, often springing from sects and congregations of American origin like the Shakers, whose "Simple Gifts" keeps reappearing decade after decade in some modified form or other. And the first musical form entirely native to the U.S. - before ragtime or blues or jazz or rock - is what used to be termed the "Negro spiritual" and which is now generally referred to simply by the latter term.

Though many spirituals were simple expressions of religious faith, some scholars believe that quite a few of them were also coded to make powerful political statements of both anger and hope as well. They suggest that "All My Trials" is a thinly-veiled reference to the tribulations of slavery, and "Swing Low, Sweet Chariot" is both a reference to and instruction manual for the use of the Underground Railroad (as is "Follow The Drinking Gourd"). "Oh Mary Don't You Weep" is almost certainly one of those - concealed beneath a veneer of salvation lyrics is a timeless cry for freedom.

The ostensible sense of the lyrics for "Oh, Mary Don't You Weep" is the anticipation of the Last Judgment/Apocalypse/Second Coming/Parousia - but the "coded meaning" could be an expression of an intense desire for freedom from slavery. "The rock where Moses stood" references the biblical figure whose primary symbolic value is as a liberator; "one of these nights around twelve o'clock/this old world is gonna reel and rock" looks toward the day of liberation, as do the "good times by and by" that are to deter Mary from weeping.

It's no surprise that this song has multiple variants in both lyrics and performance. It also is a wonderful index to the transition between the Guard and Stewart troupes of the Kingston Trio, since both trios recorded the song within months of each other, to very different effect. The Guard version wasn't released for nearly thirty years after its recording - I suspect because the Stewart version was already in the works when the Goin' Places album for which it was recorded came out.

Here are the two Trio versions, which differ clearly in rhythm, speed, chords, and lyrics. I am delighted to say that through no doing of mine - these tracks will play in full stereo.

The Guard Trio

The Stewart Trio

NBD throw in a seventh chord that the NBJ version omits. I'm also reminded here of a comment that John Stewart made often that his background in rock music gave his banjo work more of a driving rhythm than Dave Guard had used, and I think these two recordings bear that out.

But this next remarkable recording from 1929 seems to show that the Guard trio is more faithful to the source. Here is a group of anonymous field hands doing the song:

A comment on YouTube asserts that the sound must be studio recorded because of its quality. I think rather that this is an intensely cleaned-up digitized sound track - or these guys are the best lip-syncers in history.

Next - Pete Seeger delivers a fine and folky performance:

And this one won't be removed for CopyVio - because copyright holder Smithsonian/Folkways uploaded it themselves.

I tend to prefer performances of spirituals that have some real soul to them - did anyone ever sing them better than Mahalia Jackson? - and this classic gospel group the Caravans (from 1958) takes the song hard and completely into gospel blues:

Our final performance here is from Bruce Springsteen's The Seeger Sessions, which IMHO was, as Herbert Hoover said of Prohibition, a noble experiment (but by implication of course one that didn't work). Some of the Boss's selections therein I found grating and some ridiculous. A few of them worked really well for me, and this was one of them - you have to appreciate the drive that Springsteen brings to the piece,leaving everything on the stage, as he always does:

In any version and whatever its intended meaning, the song is about as joyous expression of hope for some kind of better day ahead as you're likely to find in American folk music.

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