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Soul Got a Hiding Place: Hidden Spirituals from the McIlhenny Manuscript

This blog post about the hidden spirituals sung by Becky Elzy and Alberta Bradford for E.A. McIlhenny is part of a series called “Hidden Folklorists,” which examines the folklore work of surprising people, including people better known for other pursuits. In preparing this post, I was greatly aided by Shane K. Bernard, the archivist at Avery Island in Louisiana.

Alberta Bradford (left) and Becky Elzy (right) were from Iberia Parish, Louisiana. They sang over 100 spirituals for E. A. McIlhenny and 10 for Alan Lomax. This photo and caption appeared in McIlhenny’s book, Befo’ de War Spirituals. Courtesy E. A. McIlhenny Collection, Avery Island Archives, Avery Island, Louisiana.

In previous posts, I’ve outlined the contributions of some hidden folklorists who collected spirituals in Louisiana in the 1920s. One was E. A. McIlhenny, whose main claim to fame was being CEO of the company that makes Tabasco Sauce, which was his father’s recipe. The others were Becky Elzy and Alberta Bradford, neighbors of McIlhenny’s who were African Americans and who had been born in slavery. They remembered and sang for McIlhenny over 100 spirituals, which he published in the 1933 book Befo’ De War Spirituals. Elzy and Bradford later recorded 10 of their songs for Alan Lomax, who had to abandon his father John A. Lomax by the side of the road and drive off with Bradford in order to find and record Elzy. I’ve told that amusing story, and presented the audio from that remarkable session, in this previous post.

E. A. McIlhenny in 1934, just after publishing his book Befo’ de War Spirituals. Courtesy E. A. McIlhenny Collection, Avery Island Archives, Avery Island, Louisiana.

Unlike the Lomaxes, McIlhenny didn’t have access to recording equipment when he was collecting Elzy and Bradford’s repertoire. He recognized the crucial importance of recording both the words and music of the songs, wisely commenting that “one must…consider the music and words of the old spirituals as an entirety; one can not be separated from the other without losing the value of both.” His solution was to hire Henri Wehrmann, one of New Orleans’s best known master-musicians. While he wrote down the songs’ words, Wehrmann wrote down the music.

As Wehrmann made clear in the book’s “Introduction to Music,” he worked directly from the singing of Elzy and Bradford:

These were jotted down at odd times, with two of the best known and most beloved of the spirituals songsters—one is 80 years old and the other well above 70—always present and anxious to give their best in their interpretation of their to-them sacred devotional singing. Thus the numbers presented in this volume represent the real singing of real Louisiana spirituals by real Louisiana Negroes.

Wehrmann’s “Introduction to Music” is dated 1930, suggesting that his main work of transcribing was done by then. In June 1931, a complete manuscript of the book, including the introductory material and the songs, was loaned to the Library of Congress and photographed under the direction of Robert Winslow Gordon, head of the Archive of American Folk-Song. The microfilm has remained here at the Library ever since. In the meantime, the book was published in 1933 and reprinted in 1973.

The manuscript loaned to the Library consisted partly of typescript pages with the words to each song, presumably transcribed in longhand by McIlhenny and typed by his typist Julia Latula (whom he acknowledges in his book). For each song, there were also one or two pages of music notation, handwritten on manuscript paper, presumably in Wehrmann’s hand.

The manuscript at that point was conveniently modular. Each spiritual was given one or two pages of text and one or two of music, with each song starting on a new page. Also, the pages were not yet numbered. Because of this, it was still possible to add or remove songs, or to change their order, before the final copy was prepared for publication—the only requirement would be to create a new table of contents.

In preparing the previous blogs, I stumbled across some exciting news: at some point between 1931 and 1933, for unknown reasons, McIlhenny made the decision to drop six songs from the published version of the book, and to substitute an alternate version of one song. The result is that there are seven songs in the manuscript that didn’t make it into the final book.  I’ll present these songs below, with some contextual notes for each song.

None of the songs is unique to this manuscript; all are versions of spirituals known from other singers in other states. But, since each version of a traditional song is a unique expression of the singers, each is worth presenting here as (in Wehrmann’s words) “the real singing of real Lousiana spirituals.” I will, however, provide links to other versions when I can.

Page image from the McIlhenny microfilm

I’d like to include an important note on the orthography and language: times have changed since 1931. In those days, white writers often represented African American dialect by stylized spellings of each word, such as “de” for “the,” “gwine” for “going,” and “Hebben” for “Heaven.” This was also done for other ethnic groups, but it was particularly marked when representing African American English. Today we recognize that every speaker’s dialect is unique, and that inventing different spellings for a particular person or group is usually unnecessary and in many cases offensive. On the other hand, in this case all we have is the manuscript as McIlhenny prepared it. I can’t listen to a recording and figure out what McIlhenny was trying to represent. Re-editing the texts to modern standards would be problematic in other ways, too. For example, it would obscure the nature of the original manuscript, and potentially “whitewash” the story of McIlhenny’s relationship with his informants.

One solution would simply be to include only page images from the manuscript, but this presents technical challenges. For one thing, our microfilm scanner only permits a fairly low-resolution image at present.  For another, presenting a page image would result in a blog that can’t be indexed and searched by keywords in the song texts.

For these reasons, I’ve decided it’s best to retype the texts into the blog, but to present them exactly as they appear in the manuscript. I’ve reproduced not only McIlhenny’s dialect spellings, but also inconsistencies and errors in spelling and punctuation, such as his mistake of “GALD” for “GLAD” in one title.  I hope that in this way, I can present the songs first of all as extraordinary and beautiful examples of African American culture, but also as examples of white Americans’ ways of representing that culture in the 1920s and 1930s…and of course as an accurate representation of the microfilm. I sincerely hope no one will be offended by my choice to present the spirituals in this way with these caveats, which seemed the most accurate and nuanced way to allow people access to the spirituals themselves.

A few more notes: in all cases, for the words of the songs I’ve relied on the typed pages, so if Wehrmann’s handwritten text differs from McIlhenny’s typed text, I’ve gone with the typed version. (For example, McIlhenny’s title for “On Canaan’s Happy Shore” was “ON CANAAN HAPPY SHO!” Wehrmann’s version seemingly adds an apostrophe to acknowledge the possessive case for “Canaan” and changes the exclamation point for a period, yielding what looks like “On Canaan’ Happy Sho.”) Although each version has features I’d prefer over the other, I’ve simply gone with McIlhenny’s.

In the introductory notes to each song, I refer to the Roud Index, the most complete available index of individual historical records of traditional folksongs. The Roud index is compiled by Steve Roud and presented online by our colleagues at the Vaughan Williams Memorial Library in England. By consulting the Roud index using the link I’ve provided from the “Roud Number” in each note, you can see bibliographic references to other known versions of each song.  I also provide links to audio versions where I know of an accessible and appropriate link.  Sadly, none of these unpublished songs is among the recordings Alan Lomax made of Elzy and Bradford, however, so these exact versions do not exist in audio form.

After the introductory note, McIlhenny’s text begins with the title in all capitals. In the manuscript he also underlined them, but that isn’t blog-friendly, so I’ve gone just with his choice of all caps.

Here, then, are the songs themselves, hidden spirituals from the McIlhenny Manuscript.

Alberta Bradford (left) and Becky Elzy (right) were from Iberia Parish, Louisiana. They sang over 100 spirituals for E. A. McIlhenny and 10 for Alan Lomax. Courtesy E. A. McIlhenny Collection, Avery Island Archives, Avery Island, Louisiana.

1. A Little Wheel Rollin’ In-er Ma Heart

The song called by McIlhenny “A Little Wheel a Rollin’ In-er Ma Heart” is given the Roud number 11936. The “little wheel” itself is a curious image, and probably derives from the Biblical book of Ezekiel 1:16

The appearance of the wheels and their workings was like the color of beryl, and all four had the same likeness. The appearance of their workings was, as it were, a wheel in the middle of a wheel.

Although this would seem only to have a tangential relationship to the “wheel rollin’ in my heart,” the vernacular meaning of “little wheel” becomes clear from the text of another spiritual collected by A.E. Perkins and published in 1922 in the Journal of American Folklore:

Well, de little wheel represent Jesus Christ,
‘Zekiel saw de wheel;
And de big wheel represent God Himself,
‘Zekiel saw de wheel.

Roud lists two published versions of “Little Wheel Rolling in My Heart” that are freely available online, here and here. As we can see from these examples, the lyrics vary widely, and it’s likely that the song was simply improvised in performance since each verse is really just a single line.  McIlhenny was aware that many spirituals worked this way, and made the point himself in the book:

It is almost impossible to get an exact wording of a spiritual for even the same singer never sings one twice exactly the same. The singer will vary the words, lines and melody every time the spiritual is sung. The stanzas never occur twice in the same order, but are sung as they come to the mind of the singer, and as the singer will improvise as he sings, the number of stanzas that may be sung is unlimited and is governed solely by the time that particular song is wanted to be sung.

A LITTLE WHEEL ROLLIN’ IN-ER MA HEART

Page image from the McIlhenny microfilm

Oh dere’s a little wheel a rollin’ in-er ma heart
Dere’s a little wheel a rollin’ in-er ma heart
Dere’s a little wheel a rollin’ in-er ma heart
Oh, shorly ma Jesus mus’ er be true.

Oh, you, I feel de fire a burnin’ in-er ma heart
I feel de fire a burnin’ in-er ma heart
I feel de fire a burnin’ in-er ma heart
Oh, shorly ma Jesus mus’ er be true.

Yes, I’m prayin’ for salvation in-er ma heart
I’m prayin’ for salvation in-er ma heart
I’m prayin’ for salvation in-er ma heart
Oh, shorly ma Jesus mus’ er be true.

Yes, I’m prayin’ for de sinner in-er ma heart
I’m prayin’ for de sinner in-er ma heart
I’m prayin’ for de sinner in-er ma heart
Oh, shorly ma Jesus mus’ er be true.

Oh, I’m clim’in’ Jacob’s ladder in-er ma heart
Oh, I’m clim’in’ Jacob’s ladder in-er ma heart
Oh, I’m clim’in’ Jacob’s ladder in-er ma heart
Oh, shorly ma Jesus mus’ er be true.

Oh, I’m clim’in’ higher in-er ma heart
Oh, I’m clim’in’ higher in-er ma heart
Oh, I’m clim’in’ higher in-er ma heart
Oh, shorly ma Jesus mus’ er be true.

 

2. Ain’t I Glad Dun Got Out de Wilderness

This song, which I presume McIlhenny intended to title “Ain’t I Glad Dun Got Out de Wilderness,” is given Roud number 12208.  It’s also sometimes known as “Out of the Wilderness” and “Leanin’ on the Lord.” One 1909 version that’s freely available online was called “Ef Ye Want to See Jesus.” Robert Winslow Gordon appears to have collected two versions on cylinders in Georgia in 1926 or 1927, which are in the AFC archive but not currently online for listening. This spiritual is one of several songs in the tradition with similar titles. It shouldn’t be confused with the comic song that bears the same name, which presents stereotypes of African American life in Alabama. The comic song, which probably originated as a parody of this spiritual, can be seen on song sheets like this one from the Library of Congress website.

AINT I GALD DUN GOT OUT DE WILDERNESS

Page image from the McIlhenny microfilm

I’m a leanin’ on de lord
I’m a leanin’ on de lord
I’m a leanin’ on de lord
Who wash ma sins away.

Aint I glad dun got out de wilderness
Got out de wilderness
Got out de wilderness
Aint I glad dun got out de wilderness
Leanin’ on de Lord.

I’m a leanin’ on de lord
I’m a leanin’ on de lord
I’m a leanin’ on de lord
Who wash ma sins away.

Oh, come along mo’ner, jes you git out de wilderness
Git out de wilderness
Git out de wilderness
Oh, come along mo’ner, jes you git out de wilderness
Leanin’ on de Lord.

I’m a leanin’ on de lord
I’m a leanin’ on de lord
I’m a leanin’ on de lord
Who wash ma sins away.

How you gwin’t’ feel w’en you git out de wilderness
Git out de wilderness
Git out de wilderness
How you gwin’t’ feel w’en you git out de wilderness
Leanin’ on de Lord.

I’m a leanin’ on de lord
I’m a leanin’ on de lord
I’m a leanin’ on de lord
Who wash ma sins away.

Gwin’t’ feel every better w’en I git out de wilderness
Git out de wilderness
Git out de wilderness
Gwin’t’ feel every better w’en I git out de wilderness
Leanin’ on de Lord.

I’m a leanin’ on de lord
I’m a leanin’ on de lord
I’m a leanin’ on de lord
Who wash ma sins away.

W’at you gwin’t’ do w’en you git out de wilderness
Git out de wilderness
Git out de wilderness
W’at you gwin’t’ do w’en you git out de wilderness
Leanin’ on de Lord.

I’m a leanin’ on de lord
I’m a leanin’ on de lord
I’m a leanin’ on de lord
Who wash ma sins away.

Take hebben fer ma home w’en I git out de wilderness
Git out de wilderness
Git out de wilderness
Take hebben fer ma home w’en I git out de wilderness
Leanin’ on de Lord.

I’m a leanin’ on de lord
I’m a leanin’ on de lord
I’m a leanin’ on de lord
Who wash ma sins away.

Long time seeker come out de wilderness
Come out de wilderness
Come out de wilderness
Long time seeker come out de wilderness
Leanin’ on de Lord.

I’m a leanin’ on de lord
I’m a leanin’ on de lord
I’m a leanin’ on de lord
Who wash ma sins away.

Oh, blin’ blasphemer come out de wilderness
Come out de wilderness
Come out de wilderness
Oh, blin’ blasphemer come out de wilderness
Leanin’ on de Lord.

I’m a leanin’ on de lord
I’m a leanin’ on de lord
I’m a leanin’ on de lord
Who wash ma sins away.

 

3. Israelites Shoutin’.  This song is given Roud number 16362. Other versions in the AFC archive include recordings by Robert Winslow Gordon of M.C. Mann in Georgia about 1927, and recordings by John Lomax of Rich Amerson and of Henry Truvillion. Truvillion’s 1939 performance is online for listening, here. Comparing them reveals that Truvillion’s song contained narrative verses in between the “Israelites shouting” parts, which told Bible stories from both Old and New Testaments. The version from the McIlhenny manuscript is much like Truvillion’s choruses, without the verses.

This is also the song which McIlhenny chose to replace with a different version in the finished book. He called that text  ”Dere Is a Mighty Shoutin’,” and it is very similar to the “Israelites” text, except that the repeated line is “dere is a mighty shoutin’ in de hebben.” That song is given Roud number 28949, and McIlhenny’s version is the only one Roud has come across. This raises intriguing possibilities. Elzy and Bradford may have sung the song both ways, and McIlhenny might have decided he preferred the version without “Israelites.” Having said that, though, it would be a great coincidence if they had sung two such similar songs, if McIlhenny chose to place the second in the book at the last minute, and if that turned out to be the only time the song was ever collected! It seems more likely that McIlhenny edited the text for some reason. He may have been aware of more complete versions of the song, which told Bible stories about Israelites, and might have decided this one would be a better song if it didn’t refer to Israelites. Or it may be that after preparing the draft of the manuscript, he began to doubt his memory of what the words had been, and changed them to “dere is a mighty shoutin’;” without a recording to go back to, it would have been difficult to check. Either way, given that “Israelites Shoutin'” exists elsewhere in oral tradition, it seems likely that the manuscript preserves an accurate record of what Elzy and Bradford sang.

ISRAELITES SHOUTIN’

Page image from the McIlhenny microfilm

Dis day Lord
De Israelites shoutin’ in de hebben
De Israelites shoutin’ in de hebben
I know
De Israelites shoutin’ in de hebben
De Israelites shoutin’ in de hebben

Jesus tole me
De Israelites shoutin’ in de hebben
De Israelites shoutin’ in de hebben
I know
De Israelites shoutin’ in de hebben
De Israelites shoutin’ in de hebben

Come on brudder
De Israelites shoutin’ in de hebben
De Israelites shoutin’ in de hebben
I know
De Israelites shoutin’ in de hebben
De Israelites shoutin’ in de hebben

Fare you well
De Israelites shoutin’ in de hebben
De Israelites shoutin’ in de hebben
I know
De Israelites shoutin’ in de hebben
De Israelites shoutin’ in de hebben

 

4. Ole Ship Ob Zion.

The song McIlhenny called “Ole Ship ob Zion” uses one of the most common themes for spirituals: a vehicle taking Christians to heaven. Other songs feature a chariot, a train, and in more recent days a car. There are many “ship of Zion” songs, and have been for a long time; in Thomas Wentworth Higginson’s classic 1867 Atlantic Monthly article “Negro Spirituals,” about songs he collected from African American soldiers in the Civil War, it was the only one he gave in more than one version, supplying three. The Roud Index likewise divides “Ship of Zion” songs into three types, 4204, 6423, and 16060. Of these, ours fits into 4204, which also includes “She’ll be Comin’ Round the Mountain,” a well known secular song about a celebration that occurs when someone or something (usually known only as ”she”) comes to visit. As Carl Sandburg pointed out in The American Songbag, the image of the vehicle “comin’ round the mountain” is probably borrowed into both “Ship of Zion” songs and secular songs from spirituals in which the vehicle is a chariot. Versions of the “Ship of Zion” with the “mountain” lyrics have been collected before: Mellinger Henry published a version in Folk Songs from the Southern Highlands (1938), for example.

Most versions of “Ship of Zion” in the AFC archive use a different stanza form and don’t include the “Comin’ Round the Mountain” verses. At the links, hear Louisiana performances by Gentry Young Bennet and The Gipson Family, both recorded in 1939; and a version by the Holloway High School Quartet from Murfreesboro, Tennessee, recorded in 1941.

OLE SHIP OB ZION

Page image from the McIlhenny microfilm

It’s de ole ship ob Zion hallelu hallelu
It’s de ole ship ob Zion hallelu
It’s de ole ship ob Zion
De ole ship ob Zion
Ole ship ob Zion hallelu.

She’s comin’ heavy loaded
W’en she comes w’en she comes
She’s comin’ heavy loaded
W’en she comes
She’s comin’ heavy loaded
She’s comin’ heavy loaded
She’s comin’ heavy loaded
W’en she comes.

It’s de ole ship ob Zion hallelu hallelu
It’s de ole ship ob Zion hallelu
It’s de ole ship ob Zion
De ole ship ob Zion
Ole ship ob Zion hallelu.

Wid w’at will she be loaded
W’en she comes w’en she comes
Wid w’at will she be loaded
W’en she comes
She’ll be loaded wit’ dem mo’ners
She’ll be loaded wit’ dem mo’ners
She’ll be loaded wit’ dem mo’ners
W’en she comes.

It’s de ole ship ob Zion hallelu hallelu
It’s de ole ship ob Zion hallelu
It’s de ole ship ob Zion
De ole ship ob Zion
Ole ship ob Zion hallelu.

She’ll be loaded wit’ de Christian
W’en she comes w’en she comes
She’ll be loaded wit’ de Christian
W’en she comes
She’ll be loaded wit’ de Christian
She’ll be loaded wit’ de Christian
She’ll be loaded wit’ de Christian
W’en she comes.

It’s de ole ship ob Zion hallelu hallelu
It’s de ole ship ob Zion hallelu
It’s de ole ship ob Zion
De ole ship ob Zion
Ole ship ob Zion hallelu.

And who’ll be her pilot
W’en she comes w’en she comes
And who’ll be her pilot
W’en she comes
Lord Jesus be her pilot
De Lord Jesus’ll be her pilot
De Lord Jesus’ll be her pilot
W’en she comes.

It’s de ole ship ob Zion hallelu hallelu
It’s de ole ship ob Zion hallelu
It’s de ole ship ob Zion
De ole ship ob Zion
Ole ship ob Zion hallelu.

She’s comin’ ‘roun’ de mountain
W’en she comes w’en she comes
She’s comin’ ‘roun’ de mountain
W’en she comes
She’s comin’ ‘roun’ de mountain
She’s comin’ ‘roun’ de mountain
She’s comin’ ‘roun’ de mountain
W’en she comes.

It’s de ole ship ob Zion hallelu hallelu
It’s de ole ship ob Zion hallelu
It’s de ole ship ob Zion
De ole ship ob Zion
Ole ship ob Zion hallelu.

 

5. On Canaan Happy Sho!

The song McIlhenny called “On Canaan happy sho!'” is given Roud number 17393. It’s generally known as “On Canaan’s Happy Shore” or “Oh, Fathers Will You Meet Me.” It was collected by the WPA from another former slave, Sylvia Cannon of Florence, South Carolina, who identified it as a “funeral song”—a manuscript can be found here. Interestingly, most other versions of this song have been collected from white people. The Lomaxes found a few versions of it in Kentucky, including one that’s online, by Alice Williams, Martha Williams, and Elizabeth Lovell Flatt in 1937. Collectors in the Ozarks also found it, and there are audio versions online from the Max Hunter Collection (sung by Ollie Gilbert in 1969) and the John Quincy Wolf collection (sung by Orville McInturff in 1962), as well as two in Mary Celestia Parler’s Ozark Folksong Collection, representing two different performances by Mrs. T.M. Davis (1953 and 1954). Parler referred to it as a “white spiritual.” Like many spirituals (including “Little Wheel Rolling in My Heart”) each verse is merely one line repeated three times followed by a formulaic closing line, allowing the group to continue improvising as long as they want. It demonstrates that this structure is not unique to either the white or black community, but was a common way of constructing spirituals that appealed to both groups.

ON CANAAN HAPPY SHO!

Page image from the McIlhenny microfilm

By de help ob Gawd I’ll meet you
By de help ob Gawd I’ll meet you
By de help ob Gawd I’ll meet you
On Canaan happy sho’.

Ma sister will you meet me
Ma sister will you meet me
Ma sister will you meet me
On Canaan happy sho’.

Ma brudder will you meet me
Ma brudder will you meet me
Ma brudder will you meet me
On Canaan happy sho’.

By de help ob Gawd I’ll meet you
By de help ob Gawd I’ll meet you
By de help ob Gawd I’ll meet you
On Canaan happy sho’.

We will rise an’ give Gawd glory
We will rise an’ give Gawd glory
We will rise an’ give Gawd glory
On Canaan happy sho’.

We will meet wid cross an’ trials
We will meet wid cross an’ trials
We will meet wid cross an’ trials
An don’t fergit to pray.

Cas’ all yo’ fears on Jesus
Cas’ all yo’ fears on Jesus
Cas’ all yo’ fears on Jesus
An’ don’t fergit to pray.

By de help ob Gawd I’ll meet you
By de help ob Gawd I’ll meet you
By de help ob Gawd I’ll meet you
On Canaan happy sho’.

 

6. Weary Lan’.

The song McIlhenny calls “Weary Lan'” is given Roud number 7580. It’s not a common song in AFC collections, but we have three good versions that you can hear online: Bessie Jones performing the song solo in 1961, and two different recordings of John Davis with Bessie Jones and the Georgia Sea Island Singers, one from a 1959 session in Georgia and second one from a 1965 concert in New York.  The central image of the song’s chorus comes from the book of Isaiah, 32:1-2, which says that in the Kingdom to come:

Behold, a king will reign in righteousness,
and princes will rule in justice.
Each will be like a hiding place from the wind,
a shelter from the storm,
like streams of water in a dry place,
like the shade of a great rock in a weary land.

The verses of Elzy and Bradford’s version of this song are unusual, but have obvious parallels in Bible and in other songs. The idea of a “hiding place” is common in spirituals, including both the sinner who can find no hiding place when judgment comes, and Jesus as a hiding place or refuge for the oppressed. Both images derive ultimately from the Bible, but may have entered the song tradition through the hymn “Hiding Place” by Jehoiada Brewer (1752-1817), which also contains the line “gave my soul a hiding place.”

The line “marvel not, I say to you, you must be born again” is from the Gospel of John 3:7.  It seems likely that the preceding line “what is sin but sin, what is grace but grace,” is a paraphrase of the preceding Bible verse, “That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit.” Arguably, the ideas of sin and grace have a more immediate and visceral impact than flesh and spirit, and were good choices in the context of this song.

 

WEARY LAN’

Page image from the McIlhenny microfilm

Oh, Jesus is a rock in dis weary lan’
Weary lan’, weary lan’
Oh, Jesus is a rock in dis weary lan’
An’ a shelter in a mighty storm.

What is sin but sin
What is grace but grace
Marvel not I say to you
You mus’ er be born ag’in.

Oh, Jesus is a rock in dis weary lan’
Weary lan’, weary lan’
Oh, Jesus is a rock in dis weary lan’
An’ a shelter in a mighty storm.

All you see me linger
Ah, you lingerin’ soul
You lay ma body down to die
Ma soul got a hidin’ place

Oh, Jesus is a rock in dis weary lan’
Weary lan’, weary lan’
Oh, Jesus is a rock in dis weary lan’
An’ a shelter in a mighty storm.

 

7. Who Built de Ark.

The song called by McIlhenny “Who Built de Ark” has a generally jocular tone, and its ending, “and if it hadn’t been for Nora, Lord, Wouldn’t be no you and me,” gives it the feeling of a children’s song. This is appropriate on two levels. First, it’s often sung as a jocular children’s song today, including by such popular artists as Raffi. Second, at the time she sang this for McIlhenny and Wehrmann, Elzy was known to have at least 238 great-grandchildren! This performance should probably be grouped with the songs given the Roud number 5355, but it’s not completely clear-cut. As I’ve pointed out in two previous blog posts here and here, Noah’s ark is one of the most popular themes in folksong. Since songs telling the story borrow lines from each other, it’s hard to divide them neatly into types. Elzy and Bradford’s shares lines with songs of several different Roud types, including 5355, but also 472, 3639, and 5467.

From one perspective, the closest recording to this song from our archive that’s online for listening is Bessie Jones’s version, recorded by Alan Lomax in 1962. Bessie Jones was from Georgia, and like Elzy and Bradford, she employed the vernacular pronunciation “Nora” for “Noah.” “Who Built the Ark” was only one of the four songs she sang about Noah’s ark, but while Elzy and Bradford’s song shares the chorus and the verses about “the first thing old Nora done” with Jones’s, it shares even more lines with this interesting fragment collected by Charles Todd and Robert Sonkin in California in 1941. The performer of this piece was known to them only as “Mr. Rutherford from Texas.” When I included this song in a previous blog post, I commented:

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.

I’ve since figured out what Mr. Rutherford is singing, which only deepens the mystery of its connection to Elzy and Bradford’s song. It’s a fragment of “The First Banjo” or “Why the Possum’s Tail is Bare,” the song given the Roud Number 5467. It tells the tale of Ham inventing the banjo aboard the ark. He shaves the possum’s tail and uses the fur for strings, thus explaining both the existence of the banjo and the hairless tail of the possum. It was widely sung in the Ozarks, and there are versions online at the Ozark Folksong Collection recorded in 1964 and the Max Hunter folksong collection recorded in 1970 (both of which contain some offensive language). There was a commercial recording by Bradley Kincaid, which you can hear on YouTube. It appears to have originated as a literary poem by Irwin Russell (1853-1879).  You can find it in his posthumous book Poems, beginning on page 11, as part of his poem-cycle “Christmas Day in the Quarters,” again with a warning that the language may be offensive.

So how did lines from this poem end up in a spiritual sung by Becky Elzy and Alberta Bradford? We know that Russell’s poem entered oral tradition to be collected from singers as a humorous ballad, so it’s possible that versions of that song merged with spirituals and made their way to Bradford and Elzy. But it’s equally possible that Russell borrowed lines from existing spirituals for his poem. We may never know…but finding out would be a fun research project of its own! In the meantime, it’s an appropriate mystery on which to end our tale of hidden folklorists and hidden folklore.

 

WHO BUILT DE ARK

Page image from the McIlhenny microfilm

Who built de ark
Nora Nora
Who built de ark
Nora Lord
De first t’ing ole Nora dun
He looked de country ‘roun’
De secon’ t’ing ole Nora dun
He chose de highes’ groun’
Who built de ark
Nora Nora
Who built de ark
Nora Lord.

Who built de ark
Nora Nora
Who built de ark
Nora Lord
De next t’ing ole Nora dun
He chopped his timber down
Den what you tink ole Nora dun
Built his ark on sandy groun’
Who built de ark
Nora Nora
Who built de ark
Nora Lord.

Who built de ark
Nora Nora
Who built de ark
Nora Lord.
De next ting ole Nora dun
He put his chillun sawin’
While all de sinners f’om miles aroun’
Kept-er sassin’ an’ er jawin’
Who built de ark
Nora Nora
Who built de ark
Nora Lord.

Who built de ark
Nora Nora
Who built de ark
Nora Lord.
De next ting ole Nora dun
Shut de do’ while de folks outside did battle
An’ ‘fo’ he got las’ winder shut
He heard de t’under rattle
Who built de ark
Nora Nora
Who built de ark
Nora Lord.

Who built de ark
Nora Nora
Who built de ark
Nora Lord.
For forty days an’ forty nights
De rain it kept a droppin’
To feed de animals in de ark
Kep all de folks a hoppin’
Who built de ark
Nora Nora
Who built de ark
Nora Lord.

Who built de ark
Nora Nora
Who built de ark
Nora Lord.
On Ararat foun’ lan’ at las’
As happy as kin be
An’ if it hadn’t been for Nora, Lord,
Wouldn’t be, no, you an’ me
Who built de ark
Nora Nora
Who built de ark
Nora Lord.

 

 

 

 

 

3 Comments

  1. joe ann bingham
    March 19, 2018 at 7:42 pm

    thank you for this great information,,thanks

  2. Mark Isenberg
    March 20, 2018 at 7:10 am

    You never know what a person known for hot sauce may also be interested in. Good job,all. mark in Florida

  3. Paul Stamler
    March 20, 2018 at 4:30 pm

    “A Little Wheel a Rollin’ In-er Ma Heart” sounds like it was the basis for the 1960s freedom song “I Love Everybody In My Heart”.

    Is “Ain’t I Glad Dun Got Out de Wilderness” part of the family of songs that gave us “The Old Grey Mare”?

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