Remembering The Old Songs:


by Lyle Lofgren
(Originally published: Inside Bluegrass, July, 2009)

We've been remiss in the "Old Songs" series in that, with only a couple of exceptions, we've ignored the most prolific collectors and disseminators of traditional songs: the Carter Family. I assume you know the story: A.P. Carter, his wife Sara, and his sister-in-law, Maybelle Carter (who was also Sara's cousin), from Maces Springs, Virginia, traveled to Bristol, Tennessee, in 1927, and recorded 6 songs for the Victor Talking Machine Company. They were spectacularly successful, but after a few more sessions, ran short of material (they eventually recorded almost 300 different songs). A.P. scoured the mountains for traditional songs, wrote some, and mined as many others out of old songsters as he could find. Later, he hired Leslie Riddle to collect suitable songs from the African-American communities in Virginia. The family Carterized the songs (and A.P. copyrighted them), so we don't know what much of the original material sounded like. Still, the Carter collection is broader than anything the academics were doing at the time. And their simple presentations encouraged record buyers to play and sing the songs, too, ensuring that the traditional material was kept alive. Little Moses is aliver than most. In addition to being reissued on the Folkways Anthology of American Folk Music, it's been covered by Joan Baez, Ralph Stanley, and millions of the rest of us.

The family recorded Little Moses in 1929, but I don't know where they found it. The only pre-Carter version I know of includes only the first 3 verses, but they're almost identical to what the Carters sing1. That indicates a printed source, perhaps a hymnal, although most hymn composers aren't satisfied with just telling a story, unless the message is aimed at Sunday School students. If you know an earlier source, let me know. If you want to know more about the Carter Family, read their biography2. If you want to know what else Moses did, read Exodus.

I transcribed the music in G, mainly because it fits better on the treble clef. If you want to play the tune using Maybelle's "Carter Scratch" (tune played by the thumb on the bass strings, with your forefinger scratching the treble strings between beats), fingering works much better on the guitar if you play it in C rather than G. Capo up until the key fits your voice.


Complete Lyrics:
1. Away by the river so clear,
The ladies were winding their way,
While Pharaoh's little daughter stepped down in the water
To bathe in the cool of the day.

Before it was dark, she opened the ark
And found the sweet infant was there.
Before it was dark, she opened the ark
And found the sweet infant was there.

2. And away by the waters so blue,
The infant was lonely and sad;
She took him in pity and thought him so pretty,
And it made little Moses so glad.

She called him her own, her beautiful son,
And sent for a nurse that was near. (X2)

3. And away by the river so clear,
They carried that beautiful child,
To his own tender mother, his sister and brother,
Little Moses looked happy and smiled.

His mother, so good, done all that she could
To rear him and teach him with care. (X2)

4. And away by the sea that was red,
Little Moses, the servant of God,
While in Him confided, the sea was divided
As upwards he lifted his rod.

The Jews safely crossed while Pharaoh's host
Was drownded in the waters and lost. (X2)

5. And away on the mountain so high,
The last one that ever did see,
While in his victorious, his hope was most glorious,
He'd soon o'er the Jordan be free.

When his labors did cease, he departed in peace,
And rested in the Heavens above. (X2)

[Click HERE to hear a MIDI file playing a simple, unexpressive, version of the tune.]

1. Moses in the Bulrushes. Belden, H.M. (ed.). Ballads and Songs Collected by the Missouri Folk-Lore Society, p. 449. (U. of Missouri Press, 1955). Collected in 1905 from a Miss Lowry, as "sung by her aunt in Indiana." No melody is given.

2. Zwonitzer, Mark & Hirshberg, Charles. Will You Miss Me When I'm gone?: The Carter Family and their Legacy in American Music. Simon & Schuster (2002).

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