|A Closer Walk With Thee Liner Notes
Many great hymn tunes have passed completely into the folk tradition, and are used as traditional airs, despite being composed as hymns. I learned Palms of Victory in two other incarnations before finding it in its original state. It was parodied by Bob Dylan as Paths of Victory, and I actually learned it after hearing it sung by Hedy West under the title Pans of Biscuits. Parodies of this nature, particularly of the "pie in the sky" songs, are very common, my own personal favorite being "I heard the voice of a pork chop saying 'come unto me and rest. The hymn Palms of Victory in its original form was chosen by Frank Profitt, the great traditional singer, as the song he wished to hear on his deathbed.
Sometimes, finding the source of a melody becomes a chicken and egg investigation. The tune here called Waiting for the Boatman is also known as The Seneca Square Dance and The Federals Are Coming, and which comes first, I don't know. It is undoubtedly an old tune. I learned both this and Wash in That Beautiful Pool from my wife Jessica, who also taught me O Jerusalem and In the Wilderness, as well as helping me remember the finer points of other melodies.
Wash in That Beautiful Pool is one of several camp meeting songs to be found here. This particular song was recorded by the white old timey band the Carolina Tar-heels in 1929 on a Victor phonograph record. Doc Walsh the singer and banjo player with the Tar-heels, played "knife-style" or bottleneck banjo on the recording. Typical camp meeting songs are simple and repetitious both melodically and lyrically, to facilitate easy learning.
Satan, Your Kingdom Must Come Down was recorded by Frank Profitt of Vilas, North Carolina, who learned the song from a black musician, and he played it himself on the banjo in D minor tuning. The melody has a very bluesy feel, and gives great opportunity for improvisation. Frank Profitt's recording can be heard on the superb Rounder compilation High Atmosphere.
Another example of the common borrowing back and forth between the sacred and worldly musical realms is the Sacred Harp hymn from the shape note tradition, Wondrous Love. Its melody is the English tune Captain Kidd, in which form it is used to tell the picaresque tale of the pirate's life and death. I first heard this somber and weighty piece performed by The Young Tradition, an a capella trio who introduced unaccompanied singing to many audiences in Britain, Europe and the USA during the late 60s. I play Wondrous Love in DADGAD and DADGAC tunings, with a bottleneck verse to introduce the melody. The string part was arranged by Joe Weed based on the harmonies in the shape note version.
I learned Go Down Moses as a small child in England from the singing of Paul Robeson, whose 78rpm recordings my mother would play. Frederick Douglass in his autobiography talks of spirituals such as Go Down Moses, saying "every tone was a testimony against slavery, and a prayer to God for deliverance," and the power of its lyrics is undiminished by time:
The tune for O Jerusalem appears to be a close variant of Sowwood Mountain, the old banjo-fiddle tune, but the lyrics appear to be late 20th century; they have the feeling of new age non-denominational christianity. Jessica learned the song in San Francisco in the late 1970s.
I learned Wayfaring Stranger, an Appalachian classic, early on from I don't know where, and it's always been one of the supreme examples of so many of these songs' concern with the pain and struggles of everyday life, and how movingly they reflect great depths both of suffering and of faith.
The exchange of music between the black and white communities has made American traditional music so absolutely unique and vital, and I have included here some examples of that cross-fertilization, if indeed, these are not all cross-fertilizations. During the 1920s and 1930s some of the greatest folk gospel artists were recorded by commercial record companies, and their work was made available as 78rpm recordings: three of the kings were Blind Willie Johnson and Washington Phillips from Texas, and The Reverend Gary Davis from Durham, North Carolina. All three of these musicians were extraordinarily gifted, and their contributions to the whole of popular music are enormous.
I learned What a Friend We Have in Jesus from Washington Phillips, whose entire recorded output is now available on Yazoo Records. Phillips played a small patented keyboard instrument called a dulceola, and sang with great pathos and compassion. His accompaniments are light and filigreed, but his subject matter is mortality and deliverance. The hymn What a Friend We Have in Jesus was written in the mid-19th century by Joseph Scriven, with a melody by Charles C. Converse, and it is one of the most well-known of hymns, taking on a new life as the World War I song When This Bloody War is Over. I am sure Washington Phillips, who only recorded the first verse, considered this an old song when he recorded it in 1927.
Doc Watson sang Down in the Valley to Pray on his old Vanguard recording Home Again, which I bought when I was 14 years old. It is a wonderful collection of Doc's interpretations of his own musical tradition. In the sleeve notes to that album, the great English folklorist Bert Lloyd notes that the song was printed in the Georgia shape note hymnbook of 1878, The Olive Leaf, and in Seward and White's Jubilee Songs of 1872.
Simplicity is very much the heart of this music, and simplicity was a goal of the Shaker movement, from whom comes the melody Continue to Roll. The members of Metamora, Grey Larsen, Pete Sutherland and Malcolm Dalglish, learned this from the last Shakers of Sabbathday Lake, Maine, and I learned it from them during a brief but enjoyable spasm of playing with Pete and Grey.
Longfellow wrote the text to A Psalm of Life and a melody was published credited to Charles Beecher in 1855. The melody here is a different one, which came from Lotus Dickey, the great songwriter, fiddler and gentleman of Paoli, Indiana. He lived his life as Longfellow's famous words urged -- scorning the notion that "life is but an empty dream."
I learned There's a Great Change from The Reverend Gary Davis, who played it in standard tuning with a good deal of chordal movement. I have used open D tuning and a linear slide melody to recall the work of Blind Willie Johnson and others. The slide is very often used to imitate the human voice in the gospel tradition, and I have used the technique in Wayfaring Stranger and In the Wilderness.
A Closer Walk With Thee is one of the very best known tunes to appear here. It's been recorded in many forms by black and white musicians, and is a firmly established part of the traditional gospel repertoire. It was first published in 1940 by Kenneth Morris (1917-1988), a very important publisher of black gospel music in Chicago. I first heard it sung by Tom Rush.
In the Wilderness is another camp meeting song, and where Doc Walsh used slide banjo to interpret another of these tunes, I have used slide guitar.
What Are They Doing in Heaven Today, by Charles Albert Tindley (1851-1933), was first published in 1901. Tindley was also the author of I Shall Overcome, which later became We Shall Overcome. This is another tune I'm indebted to Washington Phillips for; it was recorded by several black gospel groups and also white string bands during the 20s and 30s, in addition to Phillips' version.
These melodies of hymns, gospel songs and spirituals are largely from within the American folk tradition. There is one exception, To Be a Pilgrim, which is an English traditional tune, nowadays best known as the air for John Bunyan's famous hymn, He Who Would Valiant Be. This tune is also used for a version of the song The Blacksmith, and reminds us again how many of these airs have a secular as well as a religious purpose.
From another British a capella group, Swan Arcade, I learned Bright Morning Stars, an optimistic melody with a warm and hopeful lyric: "Bright morning Stars are rising ... Day is a-breaking in my soul." This Appalachian hymn is now very widespread in the modern folk music repertoire. An Appalachian hymn, Bright Morning Stars is played in a medley with the curious and beautiful tune Watch the Stars. I learned this from Mike Seeger's version on American Folk Songs for Christmas, although a more widely known version was recorded by Pentangle. The song was collected from the people of St. Helena Island, South Carolina, and was originally published in a 1925 collection of spirituals by N.G.J. Ballanta-Taylor, through the Penn Normal Industrial and Agricultural School. It is a gem both lyrically and melodically, beginning "Watch the stars, see how they run..."
I'll Fly Away was written by Albert E. Brumley (1905-1977), published in 1932 and first recorded by Vernon Dalhart. Brumley had considerable commercial success in the early days of commercial white "hillbilly" gospel and took his inspiration for I'll Fly Away from The Prisoner Song.
My thanks go to David and Peggy Sheppard, Paul Hostetter and Irene Herrmann, Richard Hoover, Bob Brozman, Mike Seeger, Shelley Phillips, Bob Lucas, Gail Rich, Marti Kendall, Pete Sutherland, Grey Larsen and Bill McNeil for their much appreciated assistance, and also particular thanks to Neal Hellman and to Jessica for their belief in me.
The instruments I used were a Sobell Sicilian guitar, Bown baritone guitar, Gibson HGO National triplate Spanish Guitar, Santa Cruz 12 fret Dreadnought, Sobell mandola and Gibson F12 mandolin. If it sounds like a synth, it's a guitar...scrape 'em and bow 'em. The strings were by D'Addario.
Return to A Closer Walk With Thee