Remembering The Old Songs:


by Bob Waltz

(Originally published: Inside Bluegrass, August 2004)

Old-time music lives a paradox.

The paradox is simple: The music was born in the rural south, and tries -- more than any other musical form, I think -- to stay true to those roots. And yet, it has become mostly an urban music.

That has its inevitable effects, such as a certain sophistication. I don't mean that as an insult, though a lot of folklorists do use the word that way. But a certain amount of material, viewed as acceptable in years past, has been cast aside as socially unacceptable or silly or simply no longer relevant. That includes a very large fraction of the religious material that was recorded by the Great Old-Time Acts of Yore.
I don't mean that all modern old-time fans are atheists or something like that. But there isn't that much traditional religious music -- lots of church music, but not much that exists without contact with churches or shapenote hymnals or the like. And much of what there is is, frankly, bad. So, even though a lot of early country artists recorded religious songs, a relatively small fraction of it gets sung by today's city singers.

The Double Decker String Band is rather an exception. Looking at their Marimac recording Chasing Rainbows, I'd say about a third of the material is religious.

Unfortunately, though I enjoy that record a lot, I've never managed to learn much from it. Maybe it's all those instruments they use that I don't play. This is just about the only exception -- and even this I learned from some other source. (As a wild guess, Pete Seeger, since he recorded it several times and my parents have several of his records, but that's only a guess; I truly do not recall.) The Double Decker version is from the Georgia Yellowhammers, and is quite different from the one I know. The tune here tends toward the version I know; the text is as the Double Deckers sang it.

This is an interesting piece in any case. It obviously originated as a freedom song,and indeed, the earliest known references to it are in Black tradition. The first recording (and the first text I know which can be dated absolutely) was recorded all the way back in 1915 by the Fisk University Male Quartette (sic.), obviously a Black group. But by the end of the Twenties, it had established itself firmly in the Old-Time repertoire, recorded by groups such as the Georgia Yellowhammers and the Morris Family. In the process, it became rather secularized (note that only two of the original freedom verses survive in this version). That may make it less meaningful. It doesn't make it any less fun.

From what I've seen, most people play this in G. I tend to play it in E, just because E has so many big fat chords that seem to work well with the song. I use the 12-string guitar for the same reason: It's just so big and bold and brazen.

The last two lines of the verse are the same in each verse, so I haven't repeated them.


Complete Lyrics:
One of these mornings it won't be long
You 're gonna call me but I'II be gone.
Pharaoh's army got drownded,
Oh, Mary, don't you weep.

CHORUS: Oh, Mary, don't you weep, don't you mourn,
Oh, Mary, don't you weep, don't you mourn.
Pharaoh's army got drownded,
Oh, Mary, don't you weep.

Moses standin' on the Red Sea shore,
Smotin' at the water with a two-by-four (etc.).

We drink no whiskey, we drink no beer,
We pass around the bottle and we'll all cheer (etc.).

You know them Double Deckers, they oughta be dead,
They play all night and they never go to bed (etc.).

I been in the army, I worked on a farm
But all I got to show is the muscle in my arm (etc.).

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