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Ralph Stanley: “I Am the Man, Thomas”
The term “Doubting Thomas” comes to us by way of the New Testament. Thomas, one of the disciples of Jesus Christ, said he would not believe that Jesus had risen from the grave until he had real physical proof. He needed to see and feel the wounds on Jesus’ hands and sides, the wounds suffered in his crucifixion. Jesus extended his hands to Thomas and no further convincing was needed. *
Many songs in the country, bluegrass and Appalachian genres in the better part of the twentieth century were inspired by stories of people’s faith in Christ. There could be no recognition of doubt. Perhaps a country singer proclaiming The Word in song had little or no faith himself. But he knew much of his audience was inspired by faith. It kept them going through the tough times. The singer recognized that just as he recognized his need to make a living. Thus many performers sung of a risen Christ and the audiences were made happy.
One of the best bluegrass songs exemplifying that faith is “I Am the Man, Thomas,” written by the legendary Ralph Stanley with Larry Sparks, a member of The Clinch Mountain Boys, a group long associated with Stanley. It is a hard-charging song, one that brings to mind what a friend said about musical styles, “Bluegrass is to country what heavy metal is to rock and roll.”
The string instruments are played aggressively. The tempo is fast and urgent. The words are direct. They are presented as the words of Jesus as he greets Thomas some eight days after the resurrection. The message is not delivered as eloquently as in John’s Gospel, but the point is made.
Oh, I am the Man, Thomas, I am the Man
Look at these nail scars here in my hands
They pierced me in the side, Thomas, I am the Man.
They made me bear the cross, Thomas, I am the Man
They laid me in the tomb, Thomas, I am the Man
In three days I arose, Thomas, I am the Man
Ralph Stanley’s recording of “I Am the Man,Thomas” is one of many high points in his career, which included a twenty year stint with his brother, Carter. Upon Carter’s passing in 1966, Stanley decided to carry on. There was a new generation that would embrace his music. Many rock fans of the sixties and seventies, curious about rock’s roots and traditional music forms, began attending concerts and festivals featuring Bill Monroe and His Bluegrass Boys, Doc and Merle Watson, The Osborne Brothers and Ralph Stanley. But it was his rendition of “O Death” on the soundtrack of the 2000 film, O Brother Where Art Thou, that gave Stanley his greatest exposure. Interest in his albums reached a peak level. Especially popular were more recent efforts such as “Clinch Mountain Country” which featured guest artists Alison Krauss and Bob Dylan.
The best known performances of “I Am the Man, Thomas” in the last decade have been by Bob Dylan. He has never recorded the song for official release but in little more than three years, he performed it live at least 59 times, first on September 4, 1999 in Atlanta. “I Am the Man, Thomas” fits perfectly with the musical approach taken by Dylan since the early nineties. Old hymns, traditional folk songs and blues numbers have been included in his sets, along with “Like a Rolling Stone” and scores of other Dylan originals. That may have surprised many fans, but then again it shouldn’t have. In his interview with rock critic Robert Hilburn in 2004, Dylan said, “My songs are based on old Protestant hymns or Carter family songs or variations of the blues form.” He then went on to say that he wrote “Blowin’ In the Wind” “in 10 minutes, just put words to an old spiritual, probably something I learned from Carter Family records.”
Several of the Dylan performances of “I Am the Man, Thomas” can be seen on You Tube. There are also renditions by other performers that convey the rural sensibilities so much a part of Southwestern Virginia’s Ralph Stanley. The most compelling are those performed in tiny churches, perhaps Primitive Baptist churches, like the one Stanley has attended most of his life. Also of interest is a seventies performance of the song by an acoustic group called The Gordons (check these guys out for sure, they’re really good).
*The Gospel According to John, Chapter 20, Verses 24-29
Note: This story continues the Southern Song of the Day series.