Way back when Folklife Today celebrated our 100th post, I highlighted one of Alan Lomax’s collecting triumphs, the disc numbered AFS 100. For this, our 500th post, I thought I’d do a similar story about AFS 500. This disc was also recorded by Alan Lomax, during a field trip to the Bahamas in 1935 which also featured collectors Zora Neale Hurston and Mary Elizabeth Barnicle. (Fun fact: the collection is officially called the “Alan Lomax, Zora Neale Hurston, and Mary Elizabeth Barnicle expedition collection” (AFC 1935/001), but drawing on the collectors’ last names, AFC reference staff refer to this collection colloquially as LoHuBa.)
Looking up the contents of AFS 500, I was delighted to find that it features a song with an interesting story: it’s the first field recording documenting the best known Bahamian rhyming spiritual, “I Bid You Good Night,” called in liner notes by the folklorist and musician Jody Stecher “one of the most beautiful songs in the English language—if not in the world.” The song has been covered many times in the pop and folk worlds, most famously by The Grateful Dead. Hear Lomax’s field recording below:
AFS 500 was one of several discs recorded at an evening at Elisha Portier’s house in Grants Town, Nassau, in August 1935. The singers were a group of sponge fishermen from Andros Island, geographically the largest of the Bahamas islands. We don’t know that much about the evening’s recordings, because as Lomax later wrote: “The experience was overwhelming. I took no notes.” With no notes to fix the events in his memory, he didn’t remain consistent in his later accounts either. For example, although elsewhere he states that AFS 502 was recorded by himself and Mary Elizabeth Barnicle, on page 166 of this manuscript he identifies Elisha Portier, the homeowner who hosted the gathering, as the recordist. Since AFS 500 and AFS 502 were recorded the same night, this makes it possible that Portier engineered AFS 500 as well. It also sounds like it was a crowded gathering, and it may have been difficult to control the various singers’ distances from the microphones. Either an inexperienced recording engineer or the inherent difficulties of a crowded house may account for some of the recordings being made with levels too high, and therefore suffering from distortion. Sadly, one of the distorted takes is the B-side of AFS 500, an otherwise lively and powerful rendition of the hymn “Soldier of the Cross.” Hear that recording below:
Anthems and Rhyming Spirituals: The Songs of AFS 500
Both songs on AFS 500 have their roots in works by the American hymnodist Ira David Sankey; specifically, “Soldier of the Cross” is based on a hymn with music by Sankey and words by Isaac Watts, while “I Bid You Goodnight” is based a hymn with music by Sankey and words by Sarah Doudney. In both cases, the relationships between the Bahamian spirituals and Sankey’s hymns are hard to discern at first listen, because both the words and the melodies are heavily influenced by the improvisational style known as “rhyming,” which was described by Bahamian music scholar Clement Bethel in an article in the 1983 Bahamas Handbook:
Rhyming spirituals were a product of the sponging days, when Bahamian men and boys found themselves on the Great Bahama Bank, locally called “the Mud,” for weeks at a time. They entertained themselves by singing anthems. Over a period of time, and through continued close association, crew members became familiar with each other’s vocal mannerisms. Certain outstanding singers gained a reputation as lead singers or “rhymers,” others became known as “bassers.” Gradually this musical role playing evolved into established tradition.
These rhyming spirituals were traditionally sung, unaccompanied, by men, and the texts were based on the older anthems or on some biblical story, event or character. Sometimes the songs relate events of local interest, for example, the drowning at sea of someone in the community, or the sinking of a ship. The over-riding feature of the style is the high incidence of improvisation, and as each voice is permitted to extemporize freely the resulting performance is characterized by a rhythmically complex texture. With the failure of the sponge industry in 1938, the rhyming style declined sharply and is very seldom, if ever, heard in the Bahamas today.
In the 1930s, Lomax still found these “rhyming spirituals” referred to locally as “anthems,” an older name for Bahamas spirituals. He therefore referred to “rhyming” as “the anthem style,” and described it more thoroughly, in liner notes which he wrote in 1979, but which appeared later, with the Rounder CD Bahamas 1935: Chanteys and Anthems from Andros and Cat Island:
The handling of tempo is, perhaps, the most unusual feature of the anthem style. The several parts are likely not only to have different tonal levels, rhythmic patterns, and distinctive melodic patterns, but be proceeding at different speeds – one rather slow, one medium, one with accelerations, and one, the rhyming part, in quick time. Meantime the overall tempo of the song steadily increases the longer it is sung; this is characteristic of much African and African American music; it leads to religious possession, and inspires more and more dazzling passages by the dancers and the drummers. But the marked use of multiple tempos by Bahamian choirs – grave for the alto, presto for the bass, and prestissimo for the rhymer – is unique in the universe of song, so far as I am aware.
Interestingly, Lomax applied to these songs his longtime theory that singing styles grow directly out of other aspects of a culture, especially work roles:
The distinctive effect of multiple tempos…flows, I believe, from the marriage of Bahamians to the sea and small sailboats. A sailboat moving through the sea before a good wind moves in several tempos: the lift, plunge and roll of the vessel through the water, and the forward motion of the boat itself, which increases imperceptibly and with an effect of mounting thrill as sails are trimmed and as the breeze picks up. Other rhythms can be heard in the rapid slatting of ropes against the sails, the slow creaking of the mast and the blocks, and the slide of the water along the side and perhaps across the deck. As the weather gets heavier all these dramatic and independent sound effects grow quicker, louder and more intense. […]
I believe the anthem style, which is distinctive of the period of the sponge fleet, when the seamen of the Bahamas literally lived on their cackly shell craft for years on end, is a characteristically African reworking of these maritime experiences. One might call it an organization of energy patterns and social [work] roles primarily in terms of tempo, but also of dynamics and pitch. Increase of tempo, and multiple tempos, are the very heart of much of African music. What the Bahamian added was giving each member of the group a different set of words, with a different syllabic rate to each group member.
It’s hard to say whether Lomax’s inspiration as to the origin of “rhyming” is accurate, but it’s certainly an interesting take on this unique, African-derived maritime song tradition. Whatever the origins of the style, the published words and melody of any hymn adapted as a “rhyming spiritual” were only initial inspiration, the basis from which to begin improvisation. This is what we hear in both songs on AFS 500.
A Closer Look at “I Bid You Goodnight”
Although both “Soldier of the Cross” and “I Bid you Goodnight” are well known songs, only in the case of “I Bid You Goodnight” was the Bahamian adaptation more influential on popular culture than the Sankey original. Typically sung at the end of a wake, “I Bid You Goodnight” is clearly related to Sankey’s hymn “Sleep on Beloved” or “The Christian’s Good Night.” This older song was published as a poem by Sarah Doudney in her 1871 book Psalms of Life, then set to music by Sankey, published in his hymnals by 1891, and sung by Sankey at the funeral of Charles Haddon Spurgeon in 1892.
As performed at Portier’s house in 1935, “I Bid You Goodnight” features the typical tempo variations and improvised chanting described by Lomax as part and parcel of the rhyming style. Despite the text being mostly improvised, and very hard to understand, a few phrases from the older hymn, including “Jesus love you best,” are audible in the leader’s delivery.
Although Lomax’s is the earliest recording of this Bahamian rhyming anthem, it was another Bahamian version of “I Bid You Goodnight,” collected by Jody Stecher and Peter K. Siegel from Joseph Spence and the Pinder family, that had a major impact on the folk and pop scenes of the 1960s. This later field recording, which was released on the 1966 Nonesuch LP The Real Bahamas, contains more lines from the older hymn, and can be heard at this link.
In Britain, the Spence/Pinder version of “I Bid You Goodnight” became the basis of the second movement of a quirky long-form piece called “A Very Cellular Song” by psychedelic folk and world music ensemble The Incredible String Band. The song is a 13-minute exploration of life, death, love, growth, evolution, and (of course) amoebas. You can hear it here; “I Bid You Goodnight” begins at 0:44 and lasts until 2:57.
In the United States, the best-known cover was by The Grateful Dead, who used it as a concert closer in the periods 1968-1971 and 1989-1990. They called the song either “We Bid You Goodnight” or “And We Bid You Goodnight.” As is typical for the band, many live recordings exist, revealing considerable variation in their renditions over the years. One of their most complete takes on the song can be heard in this video, recorded at the Fillmore East in New York City in April 1971. A rendition from their revival of the song, recorded at the Knickerbocker Arena, Albany, NY, March 1990, can be found at this link.
Interestingly, both the Grateful Dead and the Incredible String Band performed at Woodstock on Saturday, August 16, 1969. Sadly, neither group performed “I Bid You Goodnight” at the festival. (Still, you can now stump your friends with a great trivia question: what Bahamian folksong was recorded by two different acts who played the Saturday of Woodstock?)
The Incredible String Band and the Grateful Dead weren’t the only groups to recognize the beauty of this Bahamian spiritual. Many other groups all over the world recorded it, and versions available in licensed videos on youtube include those by Aaron Neville, Bill Staines, the Any Old Time String Band, the Cat Island Mites, Charlie Mosbrook, and the Soweto Gospel Choir.
One group recorded the song and discovered more about it in the 1990s. Waterson: Carthy, an English folk group consisting of Norma Waterson, her husband Martin Carthy, their daughter Eliza, and other family members, released this version of the song on their 1995 debut album. At the time, they included in their liner notes the following story about learning a version of the song through following the research of two folklorists in North Yorkshire:
A year or two ago, John Howson visited Staithes to record the Fisherman’s Choir, and was accompanied by Maggie Hunt who, at the same time, was interviewing the individuals involved. During conversations, Mr. Willie Wright sung a snatch of the Sankey hymn ‘Sleep On Beloved’ which he described as a lowering down song at funerals, and which was clearly the same song as ‘I Bid You Goodnight’ but in an earlier form, and when Norma heard it she went to see Willie, who kindly provided her with the other verses. When we sang the song to Jody Stecher, he was enormously pleased, not least because its function as a funeral song in the Bahamian fishing community was identical to that in its North Yorkshire counterpart.
Same Singers, Different Disc?
At the time he recorded AFS 500, Alan Lomax apparently did not consider “I Bid You Goodnight” particularly noteworthy. In fact, he doesn’t mention it in any of his later writings on the genre. The song he singled out as especially fine was “Dig My Grave,” which he issued on the 1942 78 rpm record album Bahaman Songs, French Ballads and Dance Tunes, Spanish Religious Songs and Game Songs (AAFS 5), which was later reissued on LP with a different title as AFS L5. You can download a pdf of the liner notes here. He and his father John A. Lomax also published “Dig My Grave” in their book Our Singing Country with the following headnote:
The present popularity of close-harmony anthem singing among Bahaman Negro men is due, probably, to its fairly recent introduction from the United States, which the Bahaman thinks of as a land of milk and honey and millionaires. In the evenings on the sponging grounds south of Andros, on Sundays on the water front, these groups gather, each about a leader who improvises ballads about the last hurricane, about Noah or Job, while the group fills in sad harmony—early English with a dash of barber-shop—behind him. “Dig My Grave,” thus improvised by a group of men from Andros Island, is, we feel, one of the finest of Negro spirituals.
To add to the mystery, in Our Singing Country Lomax identifies the singers on “Dig My Grave” simply as a “group of Andros Island men,” but in the AAFS 5 notes he identifies them as David Pryor and Henry Lundy. This suggests he was very impressed with the song, because in a letter to Pryor written in 1944, Benjamin Botkin, Lomax’s successor at the Library of Congress, informed the singer: “Alan Lomax…considers you the best singer he has ever heard.” On the later CD compilation Bahamas 1935, however, Lomax’s daughter Anna went back to calling the singers “unidentified,” and wrote that “Dig My Grave” is led by the same singer who leads “I Bid You Goodnight.” Anna called the unknown rhymer an “unidentified magnetic singer” with a “distinctive lead voice.” As usual, I’m with Anna, but you can listen to “Dig My Grave” in the player below and see what you think: is it the same singer?
Don’t Dig Our Grave!
It’s hard to believe this is the 500th post here at Folklife Today. When we proposed this blog to the Library after discontinuing the paper newsletter Folklife Center News, we were excited about the prospect of a publishing platform that would allow us to present the rich audio and video treasures of the American Folklife Center and the Veterans History Project alongside curatorial commentary by our expert staff. Almost five years later, the dedicated staff of Folklife Today bloggers has presented half a thousand posts pointing our readers to fascinating and fabulous collections and highlighting our public programs. I’m proud to be a part of this great crew!
Finally, just because we decided to talk about AFS 500, and the disc happens to feature funeral songs, don’t get any ideas! Folklife Today is going strong and plans to make our 501st post soon—maybe even this week. We’re also planning some fun new content for our fifth anniversary, which is coming up at Halloween. We’re eager to keep you informed about the archival treasures and programming activities of the American Folklife Center for a long time to come. So thanks to all you readers out there for enjoying some or all of our first 500 posts. We hope you’ll stick around for 500 more.