Friday, December 16, 2011

"Children, Go Where I Send Thee"

Comparative Video 101 returns this week after a long and unplanned hiatus with the first of two holiday-themed articles. The blog will resume on a weekly basis in 2012.

The holidays are upon us again, bringing with them their usual odd mixture of inclement weather, celebratory joy, retrospective melancholy, happy reunions with those whom we love, and pangs of sorrow for those whom we have lost. The winter solstice is days away; the early darkness in the northern hemisphere amazes us with the rapidity with which it falls and the utter blackness of December nights - no matter for how many decades we have known them prior. It would seem to be a strange time for festivities did we not, like our ancient forbears, recognize that the days will soon begin to lengthen into warmth and spring. That, in fact, is the real "reason for the season," as any student of anthropology and church history can tell you. Solstice celebrations are nearly universal across human culture, a fact recognized and utilized by second century Christian churchmen, some of whom also had the wit to graft Teutonic observances like decorated conifers, holly and ivy, and gift-giving into their version of the mid-winter festival. The symbolism was a perfect fit - firs and holly flourishing in the blank landscape of leafless trees, steel-gray skies, and limitless and seemingly eternal snow and ice, those evergreens appropriated by the church as the symbols of all the hope personified by the "little bitty baby who was born in Bethlehem," as the chorus of today's song goes.

Somehow the spirit thus expressed has survived and manages still to survive the onslaught of the ever-earlier commercial, tawdry, and vulgar manifestations of what we call Christmas today in these United States. What was once a largely religious observance of a single day in late December preceded by perhaps a week or ten days of preparation has been expropriated by the Scrooge-like moneychangers in the temple and perverted into a two-month orgy of frenetic buying and selling. Red and green and holiday music on the radio begin appearing now in early November, blithely ignoring the fact that the religious season is that of Advent, a time of quiet reflection, of anticipation of the joyful celebration that is yet to come, of sober purple vestments in church and purple candles on the Advent wreath.

It is in the music of the season that the spiritual essence of it all remains most deeply embedded and alive - and I mean spiritual in its broadest sense, rooted in Christian faith but extending far beyond it. God knows that we are all in need of both hope and redemption, regardless of what we do or do not believe in. The best music of the season captures and expresses that.

And "Children, Go Where I Send Thee" exemplifies that hope beautifully because it was originally an African-American slave song - and no group in U.S. history has ever had less to celebrate than pre-emancipation slaves. Many of their spirituals express the suffering and pain of that hopeless existence, yet many more are anticipatory of a better day and a glorious future, in the next world if not in this one. The source of that hope was the Christian faith initially forced upon the kidnapped Africans but in a generation or two embraced as their own with a fervor scarcely matched by their masters and captors. In those spirituals, often an amalgam of African rhythms matched with European tonalities, we have the roots of much of later American music - ragtime, blues, jazz, and rock.

The origins of "Go Where I Send Thee" are lost somewhere in the 19th century, and unlike many of the spirituals popular today whose resurrections are associated with particular artists (Mahalia Jackson with "He's Got The Whole World In His Hands," for example, or Louis Armstrong with "When The Saints Go Marching In"), this song has just always been around. While some scholars attribute the popularity of the song to Kentucky's great folk singer, dulcimer player, and song collector Jean Ritchie (who is said to have heard a group of school children singing it), recordings of the song in the U.S go back to 1936 when Dennis Crampton and Robert Summers waxed it as "Go I'll Send Thee," followed in 1940 by the Alphabetical Four and in 1947 by the Golden Gate Jubilee Quartet as "Go Where I Send Thee" (the latter on the legendary Bluebird label).

Not quite completely a Christmas song, "Go Where I Send Thee" bears a clear similarity that everyone notes to Britain's "The Twelve Days Of Christmas." Other scholars believe the song may have been influenced by "Green Grow The Rushes-O," a song that many of us of a certain age learned in grade school as "I'll sing you one-o/Every day we grow hi-ho." Maybe yes, maybe no in both cases. What is clear is that the lyric of "Go Where I Send Thee" is instructional, a kind of walk through biblical stories for the pre-literate slaves. Each number has a mystical significance beyond itself, much as the gifts do in "Twelve Days" - though in both cases, no one is completely sure about what the original significance of each number and each gift was.

We begin our musical selections with the sadly nearly forgotten folk duo of Joe and Eddie, here from the Danny Kaye show in the early '60s.



Joe Gilbert (left in the video) and Eddie Brown enjoyed several years of recording and television success until Gilbert was killed in a car accident in 1966. His early death may well be why generally only the hardest core of folk aficionados remembers this great due today.

Contrast that with the spare a capella version of legendary bluegrass pioneer Ralph Stanley:



Stanley's haunting vocal reminds us of the cross-pollination that existed between the music of the slaves and the music of the masters in antebellum America. "Go Where I Send Thee" is like countless other religious songs that had versions in both camps.

The Kingston Trio included the tune on their landmark 1960 album titled The Last Month Of The Year, which eschewed the usual Christmas standards in favor of an arrestingly original collection of folk and folk-flavored Christmas tunes from the U.S. and Europe.



As with many of the group's early recordings, the driving and jazz-tinted bass accompaniment here by David "Buck" Wheat provides all of the syncopation and much of the drive in this version.

One great folk trio deserves another - so here is Peter, Paul and Mary, who created a medley of several spirituals with "Go Where I Send Thee" as the root song:



Yet another outstanding vocal group from the pop-folk explosion of the '60s, Australia's Seekers featuring the sublime Judith Durham - this recording is from a reunion tour about ten years ago:



Johnny and June Carter Cash closed their Christmas Show in 1977 with this version, backed by an all-star chorus including The Statler Brothers, Roy Orbison, Helen & Anita Carter, Carl Perkins, Jerry Lee Lewis and others:



Gordon Lightfoot recorded "Go Where I Send Thee" at the very beginning of his career, when he was still a member of the Two Tones with Terry Whelan:



And finally - a contemporary version by the Crimson River Quartet:



The Quartet gives the song a distinctive modern gospel swing to the old number.

The Weavers, Cliff Richard, Hall and Oates, Natalie Merchant - a whole passel of other artists have worthy renditions of the song as well.

Next week - our fourth edition of "For The Season" with a bona fide folk Christmas classic, and links back to the first three of the series.

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