In my last post, I discussed the more serious side of songs about Noah’s ark. As I mentioned, though, there are other songs too, often with more celebratory messages–or even silly ones. We’ll look at some of those Noah songs in this post.
Celebratory songs tend to focus on the joy felt by Noah when the flood was done. Alan Lomax’s great friend, the singer and storyteller Bessie Jones, sang one she called “Noah, Hoist the Window.” Like other songs about Noah, this one expresses the idea that the people who lived near Noah mocked him and called him foolish for building the Ark:
The people called Noah a foolish man Cause he built his ark on the high dry land
But the main point of Jones’s song is in the refrain, which is the repeated joyful command:
Hoist the window, let the dove come in!
Bessie Jones, who came from the Georgia Sea Islands, said the name “Noah” with the vernacular pronunciation “Nora.” She knew at least four spirituals about Noah, two of which I discussed last time, and one of which is above. The fourth, “I Wished I Had Wings Like Noah’s Dove,” again focuses on the joy and the relief from worry experienced at the end of the Noah story, when the dove returns with an olive branch, signifying that the world has begun to dry off:
I wished I had wings like Noah’s dove I’d fly away to heaven and be at rest
This intense desire to have “wings like Noah’s dove” entered the folksong repertoire in other ways, too. In particular, it became part of a secular song collected by John A. Lomax in 1904 from a woman he knew only as “Dink.” As Lomax recounted in the book Folk Song USA, Dink was the wife or girlfriend of a skilled equipment operator for a levee-building company in Texas, and Lomax found her “doing her man’s laundry in the shade of their tent” near the Brazos. Her song began:
If I had wings like Noah’s dove I’d fly up the river to the man I love Fare thee well, oh honey, fare thee well I’s got a man and he’s long and tall Moves his body like a cannonball Fare thee well, oh honey, fare thee well
It continued in this vein, using Noah’s dove as a traditional example of the ability to make a long successful flight rather than for any religious message.
Lomax recorded “Dink’s Song” on an Edison cylinder, which he brought with him to the Library of Congress when he joined the staff in the 1930s. According to Folk Song USA, the cylinder had been broken for a long time by the late 1940s–quite possibly before it even arrived here. Nevertheless, Lomax popularized the song by singing it himself, publishing it in books, and passing it down to his children Alan and Bess, who both became professional singers and folklorists. From the Lomaxes, the song passed to such revivalists as Pete Seeger and Dave Van Ronk, and became a well-known part of the folk scene of the 1950s and 60s. As a result, Dink’s lines about “Noah’s Dove” can be heard in the recent film Inside Llewyn Davis, where they are sung by Oscar Isaac and Marcus Mumford.
Other animals besides the dove are often mentioned in children’s songs about Noah’s ark, many of which also note Noah’s obedience to God. An interesting fragment collected by Charles L. Todd and Robert Sonkin in a California migrant workers’ camp in 1940 from a Texan named Mr. Rutherford seems to be of this general type, in which “Noah took with him two of all the beasties.” In my years studying folksong, I don’t think I’ve ever heard a complete rendition of Mr. Rutherford’s song, so its provenance remains a mystery to me, but it’s certainly similar to other kids’ songs about Noah.
In November 1934 John A. Lomax recorded what may be the quintessential kids’ song about Noah’s Ark, “When Noah Came Marching In,” often known as “The Animals Went In Two By Two.” It’s a humorously silly song about the animals on Noah’s ark, which has been published as a folksong, a nursery rhyme, and even a pop-up book. The version Lomax found was sung by a Texas mother and daughter, Maggie and Foy Gant, to the tune of “When Johnny Comes Marching Home.” It contains the classic lines:
The animals marched in two by two, hurrah, hooray! The elephant followed the kangaroo, hurrah, hooray! Now all of these animals had a wife They led poor Noah a terrible life But they all felt jolly and gay When Noah came marching in.
(The Gant Family’s song will play in the player below; it’s numbered AFC 1935/002: AFS 000065b)
Finally, there are Noah songs that seem to be pure joyous celebration, free from the restraints of telling a story. In 1960, Alan Lomax recorded the Peerless Four singing a version of one of the same “Noah” songs I featured in my last post, where it was sung by the Golden Gate Quartet. The Peerless Four, which was actually an eight-piece band, performed the song with only the refrain and wordless vocals, transforming it from a narrative song to an infectious dance tune.
I’ll end with one of the Library’s most interesting items of Noah lore. It’s an original poem inspired by three different domains of culture: the Noah story, children’s folksongs, and sea chanteys. It was written in the style of a sea chantey by a person who knew such songs well, Harry Kemp (1883-1960), a poet and novelist who spent time as both a deepwater sailor and a train-hopping hobo in the early twentieth century. Kemp published the song in a 1920 book. When interviewed about it by the Federal Writers Project in 1938, he explained that he wrote it during a stint in jail, where the only book he was allowed was the Bible; to pass the time, he wrote chanteys and ballads based on Bible stories. Kemp also provided the text of this song to the WPA workers, whose manuscript came to the Library of Congress and can be viewed at this link, with a transcript at this link.
Like the Bessie Jones song with which I began this post, and like several other Noah songs I’ve discussed, Kemp’s song includes an interesting plot device: Noah’s neighbors mock him and call him foolish or crazy for building the ark. Since this theme is so common in Christian folklore about Noah, it’s curious that it isn’t anywhere in the Bible. It is, however, a genuinely old tradition, and is found, for example, in the Islamic account of Noah in the Quran.
Kemp’s introductory lines about “hickory bark” carry the attribution “Old School Song,” which shows that Kemp was familiar with the traditional children’s song about Noah’s ark, which is related to the Gant Family’s song above. He was probably also familiar with a sea chantey version. However, his own song is a different piece, a new work, not a folksong. Only one performance I know of has been recorded, on Son of Rogue’s Gallery, a commercial recording of sea chanteys, whose producers apparently mistook it for the “old school song” it quotes from.
Kemp was a fascinating character, so I’ll give him the last word on this classic theme:
THE CHANTEY OF NOAH AND HIS ARK
by Harry KempOld Father Noah, he built him an Ark…. Roofed it over with hickory bark.. -Old School Song Oh, Noah went up to the hills, a just man and a good, (Yo ho, lads, the rain must fall), He built an Ark, the Good Book says, of pitch and gopher wood; (And the water, it tumbles over all). The children danced before him, and the grownups laughed behind; They thought that there was something wrong with Goodman’ Noah’s mind… And when they met him coming back for needments and supplies, The dancing girls and dancing men leered, mocking, in his eyes,— And as he left the town once more and sought the hillward track, The boys sent shouts and whistles shrill behind the old man’s back. Oh, Noah took the animals and saved them, two by two; The elephant, the leopard, and the zebra, and the gnu, The goose, the ox, the lion, and the stately unicorn That breasted up the gangway with his single, jaunty horn, The hippogriff, the oryx,— all created things, in fine, Till the dim procession straggled from the far horizon line. There was neighing, squealing, barking, there was many a snort and squeak, Every sound that God gives animals because they cannot speak; And they waddled and they straddled, and they ambled, and they ran, And they crawled and traipsed and sidled, each one after nature’s plan. There was pattering of hooves and toes and lift of hairy knees— Oh, it was the greatest cattleboat that ever sailed the seas… There was never any showman ever gave such a parade As those beasts, that wended Arkward, for the gaping people made; And Noah’s townsman wished him well who once had wished him ill— For they hoped he planned a circus on his solitary hill Where he’d charge so much admission at the Ark’s red-postered door— Offering such a show as mankind never set eyes on before… But the sky grew dark with thunder throbbing like an angry drum And the gazers saw with terror that the thing they’d mocked had come, And that what had seemed a circus marching slowly in parade Was the end of all creation, and the world’s last cavalcade. Oh, the lightning dangled nearer like a madman’s rattling chain…. As an army moves to battle came the growing sound of rain: And it rained… and rained… and rained… and rained… As we do understand, Till the earth was filled with water and there wasn’t any land! Oh, Noah was a just man, a just man and a good… (Yo ho, lads, the rain must fall). He built the Ark, the Good Book says, of pitch and gopher wood, (And the water, it tumbled over all).