Friday, October 8, 2010

"My Lord, What A Morning"

There is an odd little religio-literary motif that originated in the high middle ages called "The Paradox of the Fortunate Fall." The good monks and scribes and eventually the university theologians and philosophers who emerged from their ranks, inspired by some thoughts from the very early St. Augustine and St. Ambrose, decided that hidden within the Christian belief in the catastrophic fall from grace of original sin was a blessing - that only through the awful evil of sin could humanity have learned of the profound love of a creator who would send and then sacrifice his son for its redemption.

That may seem like a very, very strange beginning for a piece on folk music, even for me. But there was something about that phrase that kept popping into my mind as I was plotting this post as I always do while commuting to work. The Fortunate Fall - that a great good could come from a seemingly ultimate evil. I recalled that a character on the television show The West Wing a few years back described slavery as "America's original sin," and it would be hard to dispute that, not simply in its initial 17th century inception in the colonies but in the fact that it took eight decades and the greatest cataclysm in U.S. history to expunge that sin, or at least begin to.

Yet it is equally beyond dispute that from this great wrong emerged some of the most important, vibrant, and enduring elements of American culture, the first and perhaps the most enduring of which is the spiritual. Before ragtime and blues and jazz and the rock music that emerged from these were the religious songs of the slaves that became the prototype for all of the rest of American music that emerged from African-American culture - European chromatic-scale melody lines underpinned by African rhythms and harmonic tonalities. The spiritual is our first wholly American form of music.

I've presented profiles of several of these that were covered fairly often during the folk revival period - "Oh Mary Don't You Weep," "All My Trials," and "Good News." I mentioned in one post the belief held by a number of responsible scholars (and vehemently rejected by others) that in some of these songs were "coded messages," including instructions to slaves on how to escape bondage on the Underground Railroad in songs like "Follow The Drinking Gourd." Whatever one thinks of the validity of that supposition, a fact that is self-evident is that a very large percentage of the spirituals included references to the end times - the day of judgment and the salvation from the bondage of sin and death. Coded messages or not, the parallel between Christian eschatology and the slaves' dream of freedom is obvious and undeniable.

One of the greatest of these forward-looking songs is "My Lord, What A Morning." We might think of it as the inverse of "When The Saints Go Marching In." The latter song's lyrics are full of the dread of judgment and are clearly a fervent prayer "to be in that number" of the saved, whereas "My Lord" is upbeat and optimistic: the singing congregation by contrast fully expects to be among the elect, and the dire disasters of the apocalypse are for them a clarion call to the "new world to be revealed."

The original song was performed at that moderate-tempoed, swinging rhythm that we associate with many contemporary gospel numbers. Here from France a couple of decades back the Elikya Gospel Singers performing "My Lord" in that style:

The great operatic soprano Marian Anderson often delved into her musical heritage to perform spirituals, but she did so in the idiom in which she had been trained:

Anderson recorded this in the 1930s, and she is attempting to communicate the essence of black American culture in what she felt was a dignified manner that white America could understand.

Also in the operatic vein is Switzerland's legendary Hugues Cuenod, who just celebrated his 108th birthday in June. What is most remarkable about this performance is that Cuenod is the only singer here - all three voices (counter-tenor, tenor, and baritone) are himself alone:

On perhaps a more familiar footing for this blog, the Kingston Trio in 1962 gave the song the familiar uptempo KT treatment:

As usual, there are the kinds of innovations here that made purists uncomfortable. The Kingstons, not unlike Marian Anderson, have translated the song into their own idiom and make no attempt to replicate the distinctively black American intonations and rhythms. Even more - the bongos in the accompaniment give the song a Calypso-styled lilt that the Trio was comfortable with but which in no way resembles any traditional approach to the song.

Likewise, Australia's wonderful Seekers given an effective folk-styled reading with a bravura lead by Judith Durham:

My good friend and fellow folkie Bob Burlinson of Pennsylvania (soon to be Northern California, though) was kind enough to point this one out to me. That last high note that Durham sings is sublime.

And since we seem to be - and I emphasize seem - far afield from the roots of "My Lord What A Morning," why not a jazz-blues-flavored saxophone instrumental by Croatian jazz artist David Kocijan:

I love what Kocijan is doing here. The protean nature of a good folk song means, as I think Comparative Video 101 has demonstrated thoroughly over the last couple of years, that this music can be successfully and respectfully translated into a wide variety of different styles. And neither of these last two versions, the Calypso-tinged Trio version and Kocijan's jazz rendition - is quite as far from the roots of the song as some might allege. Or have we forgotten so thoroughly and so soon from whence those Caribbean rhythms and jazz tonalities originate?

Addendum, July 2012

A fairly recent upload of the song by the progenitor of all pop folk groups, The Weavers - this the second troupe with Erik Darling.They had recorded it as "When The Stars Begin To Fall."


Mike said...

I was putting together a curriculum on astronomy and started to cite "Drinking Gourd" until I looked into it. Unfortunately, it's not only of dubious heritage but the instructions are way too precise and, if they worked at all, would only work from one spot. Of course, it's an attractive notion. In retrospect, every building in the Northeast was a way station on the Underground Railroad, just as every citizen of France was a member of the resistance. Retrospect mixed with guilt is a great shaper of fact.

What I find fascinating in spirituals is who they chose to sing about -- Moses, of course, but also Samson, a more chilling model. Listen to Rev. Gary Davis sing "If I Had My Way" and, well, if Massa couldn't hear the message behind THAT song, he just wasn't listening at all. (Which may have been the case.)

But I think the songs of spiritual rebirth probably reverberated with a lot of people who were not of a temperament to risk all in a confrontation or by flight, and that is, in any group, the majority. And these songs would also reverberate with the more stiff-necked, because they really aren't "pie in the sky when you die" songs. They speak of a better world to come, but they don't suggest surrender in this one.

Mauro20 said...

I can still recall how moved I was watching on tv Harry Belafonte sitting on the step of a stair while singing a wonderful rendition of My Lord... it was on one of his Xmas Lps... the best version with a great choire, IMHO

Jim Moran said...

@Mauro - I seem to recall Harry B's version - slower and with more feeling if I remember correctly. Unfortunately, I can't find it on YouTube or I certainly would have included it here.

Dianne Berryman said...

I am looking for a folk song I learned in 1965 in NYC. Young man played guitar and we learned "Beside a western water tank one cold December day" or Dying Hobo ... but the tune was/is unique. I can't find info about it. When I saw Kingston trio had sung "Sister Sara" I tried to find it on one of their lps. Do you know anything about this old folk song Dyin Hobo ... I still remember the words and they are slightly different than any I have seen on internet. Thanks!

Jim Moran said...

Dianne - I am sorry for the late reply here. To reply - to my knowledge, the KT never recorded or sang this song - I have both analog and digital copies of virtually everything that the ever released, and no song of this nature is there. Maybe the Brothers Four did it - sounds like something they might.

A YouTube search yields scores of versions. This is one of the folkiest here -

Full lyrics here -

Gretel DeRuiter said...

Hello, I am a Philadelphia resident who stumbled upon your blog during my study of W.E.B. Du Bois's "The Souls of Black Folk." Paired with an epigraph at the head of the book's second essay, are a few bars of one of the hymns you mention in this blog post. After reading your post, I became fascinated by the fact that this song's lyrics were originally written as "My Lord, what a mourning" -- not "morning," which casts a very different mood over the song's message than what you describe! I wonder when the shift was made -- because I see multiple recordings under both spellings still being produced!

Jim Moran said...

Belated thanks for this, Ms. DeRuiter. I often wondered about this myself. I'm sure that as you note both spellings have been used, to different effect, clearly. I would hazard the guess that the "mourning" is for the passing away of all creation on the Last Day, though clearly the expectation of the Christians (who in most versions are "singing" in contrast to the sinners who are "wailing" or "moaning") is that this day is a portal to eternal happiness. When I get a chance, I'll see if I can find a developed or sequential history of the song's publication. It occurs that such a thing might be available at
And voila! An extended discussion is here,with the first 1880 copyright with "mourning" from the Jubilee Singers; by 1925, it's "mornin'" in the James Weldon Johnson collection, and I'm sure that if you have studied DuBois you have also encountered literary heavyweight Johnson. It's an excellent thread on Mudcat - and thanks again for bringing up this fascinating point.

Mudcat On "My Lord"


Jim Moran said...

Ooops - I should have read the whole Mudcat thread - there are versions earlier than 1880 cited, though as you note they seem to be generally "mourning."