Southern Culture

I have always said that the best way to learn about anything is to teach a course on it. Teaching a new class is a lot of work, especially at my advanced age. Still, way back in my distant past, I offered a course at the University of Maryland on the history of country music. Later, at Ole Miss, I was one of three instructors for an “Introduction to Southern Culture” class where we tried to integrate history, literature, and music in a coherent way. Although I enjoyed trying to hold up the history end of the bargain, the most stimulating – not to mention challenging– aspect of my duties was helping college freshmen try to figure out William Faulkner’s Absalom, Absalom! Now, on the cusp of my dotage, I have somehow caught a wild hair and undertaken to reprise this course, although flying solo this time with upperclassmen, rather than freshmen, along for the ride.

Georgia Field Hands sing “Oh Mary, Don’t You Weep”
Georgia Field Hands sing “Oh Mary, Don’t You Weep”

On the first day of the semester, I told the students in “Understanding Southern History and Culture” that I would do my best to make the course enjoyable for them, but regardless of whether they had fun or not, I damn sure intended to. It’s soon yet to gauge their reactions, but thus far, Il Professore has been having a blast. Here is one example of the kinds of historical/cultural interconnections we are exploring. While preparing a discussion of the ways in which slave spirituals, like slave folktales, tended to emphasize tales of triumph and deliverance in the face of overwhelming odds, it occurred to me that an old song that was one of the very few I ever heard my father try to sing might be a fairly vivid case in point. Sure enough, “Sister Mary, Don’t You Weep” seems to have come out of the slave spiritual tradition. Here’s just a snippet of one of the many versions of the lyrics:

“If I could, I surely would
Stand on that Rock where Moses stood.
Pharaoh’s army got drownded.
O’ Mary, don’t you weep.

Chorus:
O’ Mary don’t you weep, don’t you mourn.
Pharaoh’s army got drownded in the storm.
Pharaoh’s army got drownded.
O’ Mary, don’t you weep.

One of these mornings ’bout twelve o’clock,
This old world’s gonna reel and rock.
Pharaoh’s army got drownded
O’ Mary Don’t you weep. . . .”

Although Jesus does play a bit part in some versions of this song, Moses seems to have been the marquee superstar of slave spirituals—his resemblance to Charlton Heston made him a natural, I suppose—although other Old Testament worthies such as Joshua, Noah, and Daniel were popular as well. If there’s a musicologist out there who has a better take on this, I’d be grateful to hear it, but my two cents worth is that most of the preaching aimed at the slaves featured the volatile God of the Old Testament who, like ol’ Massa was quick to anger when his servants were disobedient. As the slaves saw Him, however, He was also Jehovah-on-the-spot whenever he was needed to step in to make things right in the here and now, and his earthly agents were also guys who favored taking the oxen by the horns, so to speak, over promising pie-in-the-sky in the sweet-by-and-by.

One thing is for sure, a great many of the slave spirituals outlived their creators and the original context in which they emerged. For example, here is a version of “Sister Mary” as performed by a target=”_blank”>group of Georgia field hands, supposedly circa 1916, although the details on the exact date of the recording are sketchy.

Like so many southern cultural forms, slave spirituals demonstrated just how porous the region’s supposedly impenetrable color barriers could be. Check out “Sister Mary” as done here by the Georgia Yellow Hammers, a 1920s string band whose composition and constituency were about as white as you could get.

The theme of deliverance despite the odds that permeated “Sister Mary” virtually assured its resurgence as a popular anthem for civil rights workers, and it quickly made its way into the repertoire of famed activist folksinger Pete Seeger. Take a look at this rendition by Bruce Springsteen and friends in a session dedicated to Seeger.

As a song becomes a mainstay in a certain vernacular, it’s tune can easily become as relevant—and in this case, inspiring—as its lyrics. Thus did both the rhythm and spirit of “Sister Mary” infuse “If You Miss me at the Back of the Bus,” another famous song of the Freedom Movement.

The content and presentation of this song rooted in the travail of African American slavery have clearly varied some over the nearly two centuries of its likely existence, but no less than Absalom, Absalom! or any other Faulkner novel, the enduring relevance of its message of faith and deliverance bears witness to the fact that cultures survive not so much by resisting change as by accommodating and sometimes even inviting it.

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Jim Cobb

Jim Cobb

Jim Cobb teaches history at the University of Georgia, where he is B. Phinizy Spalding Distinguished Professor in the History of the American South. His most recent book is the South and America Since World War II (Oxford University Press, 2010) He has been known to blog at www.cobbloviate.com.