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“The Sun’s Gonna Shine In My Back Door Someday”: Songs Of Hope In A Time Of Fear

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Fabrizio Cammarata took the Archive Challenge in 2019. Publicity photo courtesy of the artist.

This guest post by Jennifer Cutting is part of a series of blog posts highlighting performances by contemporary artists at special “Archive Challenge” showcase stages, both at the Folk Alliance International conference, and at the Library of Congress as part of the Homegrown concert series. (Find all entries in the series here!) In both of these venues, we invite contemporary artists from many genres of music to choose a song or tune from the American Folklife Center archive, put their own stamp on it, and perform it for a live audience. We’ve even created a way for you, or anyone you know, to get involved in the Archive Challenge–find out how at this link.

I don’t need to tell you that it’s a very unusual time in our world right now. For the first time since the Spanish Flu pandemic in 1918, people across many cultures around the world are experiencing the same thing: fear of an invisible and deadly enemy. As we watch the death tolls rise on the news while confined to our homes, we can experience anxiety of so many kinds: anxiety for own health and that of our loved ones; anxiety that we will not be able to get adequate food and supplies for the requirements of daily living; financial anxiety as our economy and livelihoods are threatened…in short, anxiety about the the physiological and safety needs that Abraham Maslow’s 1943 theory (often called “the hierarchy of needs”) suggests are our most basic and immediate concerns. It’s no wonder that when these most basic and pressing needs are under threat or not fulfilled, we have a hard time thinking about (or doing) anything else.

When anxiety is high, music can be powerful medicine. Contemporary research is examining music’s ability to lower stress and anxiety, but the ancients knew of music’s healing power too. For example, the Hebrew Bible relates how King Saul could be relieved of his mental torment only when David played to him on his lyre (1 Samuel 16, 14-23). And like Saul, we can find a path out of our own anxiety by listening to music. I’m glad to report that there are many songs in the American Folklife Center archive that speak of transcending life’s pain. Let’s hear a few of them, as performed by contemporary artists who have chosen to learn them and sing them for others.

Piper Hayes and her partner Carson Ritcey-Thorpe took the Archive Challenge in Kansas City in 2018. Publicity photo courtesy of the artist.

Trouble in Mind

I’ll lead off with a 2018 performance by Ontario singer-songwriter Piper Hayes her partner Carson Ritcey-Thorpe, because in Hayes’s introduction to the song she chose from AFC’s archive, she speaks so eloquently about the role of the musician in experiencing, and inspiring, the emotion of hope. Having spent a whole day sifting through AFC’s field recordings online, Hayes settled on the song “Trouble in Mind” as sung by Vera Hall in a recording Alan and Elizabeth Lomax made of Hall in their New York City apartment in 1948. The Lomaxes had brought Hall and other artists to New York City to perform at a concert at Columbia University called “Ballads, Hoe-Downs, Spirituals, and Blues,” and they took the opportunity to record more of Hall’s songs after the event was over, since she was staying with them. (You can hear Hall’s recording of “Trouble in Mind” at this link, enjoy an alternate take at this link, and browse the first 1948 session with Vera Hall at this link.)

The recording of Hall singing “Trouble in Mind” affected Hayes deeply:

I think we can probably all here relate to dealing with mental health issues… and whether it’s us, or somebody else in our lives. When I listened to Vera Hall’s version of this song, I heard this, you know, she kind of sang it with this hope, and this energy, that transformed the darkness of the song, and what the song is actually talking about, ‘cause some of the lyrics are talking about suicide, and you know, that’s heavy stuff. But she was singing it in this way that, brought this ‘I’m gonna persevere in this,’ and I think what’s so amazing about the folk tradition and music in general, a lot of the time, it comes from pain… So we wanted to honor that, and we wanted to honor the hope that so many artists have brought into our lives, despite whatever they were facing in their own lives.

Vera Ward Hall at her home in Alabama in 1959. Photo by Alan Lomax. Find the archival scan at the Association for Cultural Equity.

And there was yet another musical influence at work here, because in 2018, Archive Challenge participants were requested not only to interpret a piece from the AFC’s collections, but to honor a Folk Alliance Lifetime Achievement Award winner, in fulfillment of that year’s conference theme. So Hayes and Ritcey-Thorpe named Odetta as that honoree, and drew equally from Odetta’s performance of their chosen song.

Their own arrangement of “Trouble in Mind” differs from both the unhurried delivery of Vera Hall’s unaccompanied version, which you can hear at the link above, and the bluesy, slow burn of Odetta’s recording with Pinetop Perkins, which you can hear in this licensed YouTube video. They chose to take the song faster, setting it to a cheerful, upbeat guitar strumming pattern. As Hayes says in her introduction: “We kind of took a little bit of a twist, and we kind of added a bit of energy to it.” See their performance in the player below!

Though their adaptation of the lyrics differs slightly from both Hall’s and Odetta’s, they don’t stray too far:

Trouble in mind, I’m blue, but I won’t be blue always
‘Cause the sun’s gonna shine in my back door someday

Trouble in mind, I’m blue, I have almost lost my mind
Sometimes I feel like livin’… sometimes I feel like dyin’

I’m gonna lay my head on some lonesome railroad line
Let that 219 train pacify my mind

Oh, trouble, oh trouble, trouble on my weary mind
When you hear me laughin’…it’s laughin’ to keep from cryin’

Trouble in mind, I’m blue, but I won’t be blue always
‘Cause the sun’s gonna shine in my back door someday

Going down to the river, bring along my rockin’ chair
If these blues don’t leave me, I’ll rock away from here

Trouble in mind, I’m blue, but I won’t be blue always
‘Cause the sun’s gonna shine in my back door someday

What Are They Doing in Heaven Today?

The months of self-isolation required to flatten the curve of Covid-19 infections is itself challenging to maintaining one’s mental health. All of life’s group rituals — both the happy and the sad ones — have been put on hold. The danger of spreading the virus prevents us from gathering together to share our grief with groups of friends and family, and that is particularly difficult. I have lost several family members and friends recently, some to Covid-19 and some to other causes, and I have been prevented from visiting the bedsides of my loved ones or attending memorial services for them. And I am not alone; the same is true for hundreds of thousands of others right now. So perhaps now, more than ever, it brings some of us comfort to think of the loved ones we are losing as being in a better place, whatever form that takes in the great variety of belief systems and wisdom traditions we observe.

“What Are They Doing in Heaven Today?” addresses our longing to feel that our loved ones are now in a place untouched by the ravages of illness and death. Some attribute the song to gospel-blues musician Washington Phillips, who first recorded it in 1928 on vocals and zither, a performance you can hear in this licensed YouTube video. However, it was actually written in 1901 by African-American Methodist minister Charles Albert Tindley, one of the founding fathers of American gospel music. The song grew legs; it has been included in at least sixteen hymnals and covered by musicians of many musical genres, including a 1938 African-American gospel quartet version by Golden Gate Quartet; a 1948 early bluegrass version by the Lilly Brothers; a 1964 soul version by The Staple Singers; and a 2006 country version by Vince Gill.

One version that we have in our AFC archive was sung by Viola Jenkins and recorded by John Lomax and Alton Morris in Gainesville, Florida in 1937. Singer-songwriter Fabrizio Cammarata of Palermo, Sicily, selected this version to inspire his performance in the 2019 Folk Alliance Archive Challenge in Montreal.  In his introduction, he says:

I chose this gospel song that was written in 1901. I think it’s a beautiful song… Personally, I’m not a believer, I’m not a religious person, but, despite this, I really think that some of the most beautiful music in human history was inspired by hope. So this is why I love this song.

See his performance in the player below!

Here’s an excerpt of the verse that most directly addresses the hardships many are living through right now in the age of the novel coronavirus:

There are some whose bodies were full of disease,
Physicians and doctors couldn’t give them much ease,
But they suffered til death brought a final release,
What are they doing there now?

What are they doing in heaven today,
Where sin and sorrow are all done away,
Peace abounds like a river, they say,
What are they doing there now?

Jesus on the Mainline

Another uplifting song performed in the Archive Challenge showcase is “Jesus On the Main Line (Tell Him What You Want),” performed by San Francisco group The Vivants in 2015, the year of the Alan Lomax Centennial. To celebrate the achievements of this great collector, we asked performers to interpret songs that Lomax collected (and, in some cases “put on the map”). The Vivants found this song on this list of iconic Lomax songs that we compiled at the time. They visited this link to hear Lomax’s 1959 field recording of “Jesus on the Mainline” performed by James Shorty, Viola James, and the congregation of Independence Church in Tyro, Mississippi.

The members of Independence Church sang the song without musical instruments, just their own voices accompanied by alternating clapping and stamping to provide a propulsive rhythm. It’s easy to see why a band like The Vivants chose this song to make their own, given that they say they “find their musical faith in the inspiring traditions of Southern music.” When The Vivants created their own arrangement of this field recording, they brought to it all the musical vocabulary of their western swing, early jazz, and old-time country influences.

“Jesus on the Main Line’s” faith-filled lyrics are greatly reassuring for a world living in fear of illness:

If you need a doctor, tell him what you want
If you need a lawyer, tell him what you want
If you need a friend, tell him what you want
You can call him up, tell him what you want
If you’re sick and can’t get well, tell him what you want
If you’re sick and can’t get well, tell him what you want
If you’re sick and can’t get well, tell him what you want
You can call him up, tell him what you want

The Vivants’ exuberant arrangement features three-part harmony and solos on fiddle, accordion, and trombone…and even tap dance! If all that doesn’t cheer you up, we don’t know what will!  View it in the player below!

We may not have discovered yet the perfect medicine to treat Covid-19… but I hope these songs from the American Folklife Center’s archive have been the perfect medicine for your mood. And one last hope in this time of fear…. that the sun’s gonna shine in your back door someday soon.


  1. nice article

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