The tale of Noah and the ark is one of the Bible’s perennially popular stories. Children’s books, novels, comics, TV shows, and even movie novelizations are forever emerging onto the scene, depicting the story of the great flood. There’s even a motion picture out right now, featuring a modern take on the story. It may not be too surprising, then, that Noah’s ark has also inspired a virtual boatload of songs in the collections of the Library of Congress.
Since Noah is, after all, a Bible character, it’s only natural that most of the songs about him are spirituals expressing religion and morality. As an example, listen to the song “Who Built the Ark?” recorded by Alan Lomax from the Georgia singer Bessie Jones in 1962.
“Who Built the Ark?” teaches an important lesson, stressing Noah’s hard work and his steadfast obedience to God despite being considered a fool by his neighbors. It concludes with the moral:
Noah obeyed everything God said
And all his family was saved that day.
There are other lessons to be learned from the Noah story, too. In another of Bessie Jones’s songs, “Old Ark’s A Moverin’,” life is likened to the ark, a moving ship on which our salvation depends. Walking on the ark is treacherous, and must be handled with care:
Mind, my sister, how you walk on across
Your feet may slip, and your soul get lost!
Other spirituals about Noah take a more general approach, recounting the story in some detail. On December 20, 1940, the Golden Gate Quartet performed one such song in the very building where I’m writing these words. That evening the “Gates,” as they were known, gave a concert with Josh White in the Library of Congress’s historic Coolidge Auditorium. Billed as “Program of Negro Folk Song with Commentary,” the concert included not only the quartet and Josh White, but also learned commentary by Sterling Brown, Alain Locke, and Alan Lomax. It was a celebration of the seventy-fifth anniversary of the thirteenth amendment to the Constitution, which finalized the emancipation of American slaves.
For their third song at the historic concert, the Gates launched into “Noah,” a spiritual which exemplifies their signature sound. Listen as the Gates vamp on the phrase “God’s gonna ride on the rain and tide,” adding melodic humming over the top. They underpin that sound with what the group’s leader Willie Johnson termed “vocal percussion” before launching into the main lyrics, creating a wonderfully complex vocal sound. (The song, which will play in the player below, is part of the AFC collection item numbered AFC 1942/011: AFS 06093.)
Songs about Noah could also carry an apocalyptic message, predicting the destruction of the world by fire. On May 17, 1939, about thirteen miles outside Merryville, Louisiana, along the highway into DeRidder, John and Ruby Lomax stopped at the New Zion Baptist Church to record Deacon Sylvester Johnson and a group of singers including Rufus Spearman. One of the songs they recorded, “Home on the Rock,” ended with the lines:
God showed Noah by the rainbow sign
No more water but fire next time
Sadly, the Lomaxes ran out of disc space before this line was sung, as you can hear at this link. But they dutifully wrote out the lyrics in their fieldnotes on the trip, preserving the full song for the AFC’s archive.
It’s not the only time this couplet has been collected by the Library of Congress fieldworkers. In fact, the couplet transcends song genres: while it seems to have originated in spirituals like “Home on the Rock,” it also appears in secular songs, and even in work songs. As an example, listen to a track-lining song recorded by Herbert Halpert from railroad worker Henry Hankins in Tuscumbia, Alabama, in 1939. (The song, which you can play in the player below, is numbered AFC 1939/005: AFS 02946 A1.)
The couplet “God showed Noah by the rainbow sign/ No more water but fire next time” is an interesting summary of, and commentary on, Genesis 9:9-17, in which God shows Noah the first rainbow and tells him it is the sign of a new covenant: God will never again destroy the earth by flood. In the Bible, God does not mention fire at all, which makes the song’s invocation of fire stand out, especially to alert and educated hearers. It has been seen as a reference to the Second Coming as described in the Second Epistle of Peter or in Paul’s second letter to the Thessalonians. More generally, though, it’s a sardonic acknowledgement that God only promised not to destroy the Earth by water, which leaves other possibilities open, and that there are still wicked people in the world to be punished “next time.” It leaves unsaid who those people might be, allowing African Americans in slavery and under Jim Crow laws to comment on the wickedness of their oppressors clandestinely, while on the surface they were just telling wholesome bible stories. Such eloquent but coded communication, transforming spirituals into hidden messages of protest, is a hallmark of African American folklore, a fact which has been recognized by black scholars for generations.
[We have one more example of this couplet in a song about Noah, at the 43:00 minute mark of the webcast below. It’s from 2005, when the Birmingham Sunlights performed in the Coolidge Auditorium as part of the American Folklife Center’s Homegrown Concert Series. They sang the spiritual “It’s Gonna Rain,” using it to demonstrate two different styles of rap vocals.
Bible stories provided the basis for both songs and sermons, and sometimes fieldworkers recorded long improvised narratives that could be considered part of either genre. One example of such a masterful sermon-in-song was recorded by John A. and Alan Lomax from Norman Haskins at the State Penitentiary in Raleigh, North Carolina, on December 22, 1934. It makes the Noah story into an apocalyptic vision involving angels doing God’s bidding: they instruct Noah to build the ark and then bring clouds to earth as rain. Haskins’s song may be difficult to understand, so we follow the audio with a transcription of the lyrics.
This virtuoso performance of what appears to be an original piece is made all the more poignant by the fact that it is, as far as we know, the only recording Haskins ever made. For that reason, I’ll give him the last word in this post on songs about Noah’s ark…but I’ll have more Noah’s ark songs to share next week!
(Haskins’s song, which will play in the player below, is cataloged as AFC 1935/002: AFS 00270 b1)
The transcription follows:
Noah and the Flood Chorus:
Well, you bound, I’m bound… the kingdom… Well, you bound, I’m bound… the kingdom… Well, you bound, I’m bound… the kingdom… Well, my God sent Noah ten angels from the throne of glory, Down in the poor, Said to work among the fields of the poor. God sent Noah ten angels from the thrones of glory To help old Noah to build a… Noah was building the ark one hundred and twenty years. Said, had one hundred and twenty nails to drive, Said, had one hundred twenty rooms complete. Said, “Oh, Noah, what you been doing?” “Well, all the time you been teaching the people, Lord, to repent.“ My God’s gonna ‘stroy this world by water; They call me a fool all over the land. But the old man kept on building for a home in the kingdom land. Chorus: Well, you bound, for the…kingdom land. Well, you bound, I’m bound…the kingdom… Well, you bound, I’m bound…the kingdom… Well, you bound, I’m bound…the kingdom… Well, you bound, I’m bound…the kingdom… Well, you bound, I’m bound…the kingdom… Well, my God sent Noah ten angels from the throne of glory, Down in the poor. Said to work among the fields of the poor. Said, God sent Noah ten angels from the throne of glory. “Ah, bring your wife and the three sons and their wives. “ “Ah, what you gonna do?” “One day, brother Noah, I’m gonna prove to the world I’m God of all power.” God almighty open, no man can shut. God almighty shut, no man can open. God, all o’ my life. The angels take their vows. Said, into the flood, He was sending one angel, Lord, way east, He was sending one angel, Lord, way north, He was sending one angel, well, way south, He was sending one angel, said, way west. Well, six angels come over to hold up the folds of the clouds and let water come down Just like a flood. “Well, six angels, I want you to hold out the folds of the field. Let water fall off like a mountain. Well, fourth angel, well, third angel, well, the second angel, well, first angel, I want you to gather up the little pieces of ten clouds Ah, get ’em in a solid, March to the fields.“ Said, water is falling, the water is rising. The water got up by the fields of the door. Said, the death went up to the upper floor. When they got there, said, the water was there. Ah, they couldn’t go no higher. They then looked up and seen the ark coming. That they called the old man a fool about building. They began to scream and cry. Said, “Oh, Noah, let your ark sail, sail thisaway. Lord, please don’t let the world…“ Noah said, “No, no,” said, “Remember one hundred and twenty years ago. Said, “Told this time would be.“ Said, “Called me a fool all over the land.” But the old man kept on building for a home in the kingdom land.” Chorus: Well, you bound, bound…kingdom… Well, you bound, I’m bound…the kingdom… Well, you bound, I’m bound…the kingdom… Well, you bound, I’m bound…the kingdom… Well, you bound, I’m bound…the kingdom… Well, you bound, I’m bound…the kingdom land.