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Folk-Songs of America: The Robert Winslow Gordon Collection, 1922-1932

Band B2

Fieldwork in Georgia gave Gordon an opportunity to do problem-oriented research in an area of folksong which, during the twenties, was the focus of extensive debate. Just as he sought evidence to establish the history of ballads like "Old 97" and lyric songs like "The Prisoner's Song," he also sought the origin and development of spirituals.

The debate about spirituals, which began after the Civil War, arose from the question of whether they were of black or white origin and, depending on one's point of view, whether they had been altered by one group or the other. Gordon spoke to the question twice; once in his article "Negro Chants," in Folk-Songs of America and again in "The Negro Spiritual," his contribution to the 1931 book The Carolina Low-Country (Smythe, pp. 191-222). In both articles he used as his principal piece of evidence Mary Mann's first song on this record.

Gordon believed that "a monotonous sing song chant its rhythm sometimes closely imitating that of a drum" (Gordon, p. 34) represented the Negro's earliest attempt at religious song composition in English. These, which had as their unit the single line or, at most, the couplet, and in which the chorus was used irregularly (perhaps only when the singer was trying to remember more verses), were "prior to regular adoption of white models." When such songs were sung in a group, the refrain was carried on in a nearly continuous way, providing a "basing" over which the lead soared.

Mary C. Mann's "Ol' Man Satan/Drive Ol' Satan Away" was evidence, Gordon believed, of "the earliest text of a Negro spiritual that has ever been published." He explained:

This song was a favorite with Amelia, a slave brought to this country prior to 1800 from the island of Madagascar. She taught it to her grand-daughter, Violet, and she in turn taught it to her granddaughter, Mary, from whom I obtained it. Amelia was one of a number of slaves captured by the British in the war of 1812 and taken to Nassau, in the Bahama Islands, whence she never returned. She must, therefore, have sung the song prior to this time. The evidence rests entirely upon tradition, but the scrupulous accuracy of my informant in many other statements made to me -- statements that I have been able to check in historical documents -- leads me to place great trust in her account (p. 39).

He then printed the text. In his 1931 essay he called this an example of a pre-stanzic Negro spiritual which "proceeds in surges rather than in stanzas" (Smythe, p. 215). Gordon collected several songs in Georgia which parallel these texts (GA401, GA447).

The song given here represents the usable portions of the two cylinders on which Gordon recorded it. Therefore this recording varies at several points from the texts as published by Gordon. In particular, the last six verses are omitted.

OL' MAN SATAN/ DRIVE OL' SATAN AWAY [MP3 file]
Gordon cyl. A347-8, Item GA124
Mary C. Mann
Darien, Georgia
April 12, 1926

Oh, old man Satan
Glory hallelujah
I think I ought to know you
Glory hallelujah
Oh, old man Satan
Glory hallelujah
I think I ought to know you
Glory hallelujah
Set you'self in de corner
Glory hallelujah
Rub your face with ashes
Glory hallelujah
You call yourself a Jesus
Glory hallelujah
I think I ought to know you
Glory hallelujah
I know you by your red eye
Glory hallelujah
I know you by your cow horn
Glory hallelujah
Or, old man Satan
Glory hallelujah
You cheat me once already
Glory hallelujah
You cheat my oldest father
Glory hallelujah
You cheat my oldest mother
Glory hallelujah
You cheat even Adam
Glory hallelujah
I think I ought to know you
Glory hallelujah
I think I ought to know you
Glory hallelujah
I think I ought to know you
Glory hallelujah
Come, my brother Johnny
Glory hallelujah
Come help me drive old Satan
Glory halle—

Drive him out the back door, hallelujah
Drive old Satan away, my Lord
Drive old Satan, hallelujah
Drive old Satan away

Far as he will go, hallelujah,
Drive old Satan away,
Drive him out the back door, hallelujah,
Drive old Satan away.

Drive him out the grog shop, hallelujah,
Drive old Satan away, my Lord
Drive him to the woodside, hallelujah,
Drive old Satan away.

I think I ought to know him, hallelujah,
Drive old Satan away,
Cheat my oldest mother, hallelujah,
Drive old Satan away.

Mary Mann's second song is, in her words, a "boat song". Such songs are familiar in the Georgia Sea Islands. In "Negro Work Songs From Georgia," Gordon described the rowing songs which he collected. He found them "very close to spirituals—some of them are spirituals slightly made over." He described the long boats—cypress dug outs—and their crews of six to eight manning long sweeps, and then the songs as they were sung:

The leader always sang the verses, usually in tenor voice, and the other rowers chanted the refrain in lower key. There was no pause, the lines overlapping each other with curious effectiveness. Though I print the songs in stanzaic form, the stanzas were not apparent in the singing (Gordon, p. 17).

This song, like Mann's first, shares the non-stanzaic construction noted by Gordon for rowing songs. The contrast between strophic construction found in European folksong and the litany form found in Africa supports Gordon's argument that these songs in Mann's repertoire represent an early stage in the progress from African to Afro-American folksong traditions. Gordon collected several other rowing songs from Mann; he also collected another version of "Finger Ring" from a Darien informant (A285, GA75). Mann's statement at the end refers to Mrs. (Roberta Paul) Gordon, whom Mann had known since childhood.

FINGER RING [MP3 file]
Gordon cyl. A345, Item GA122
Mary C. Mann
Darien, Georgia
April 12, 1926

I lost mama's finger ring, finger ring, the finger ring,
I lost mama finger ring, finger ring, the finger ring,
I lost my mama finger ring, finger ring, the finger ring.
I lost my mama finger ring, finger ring, the finger ring.

I know how, I know how to row the boat,
I know how, I know how to row the boat,
I know how to row the boat, I can row the boat just so, finger ring, the finger ring.
I can row the boat just so, finger ring, the finger ring.

I can row, I can row the Bumble Bee,
I can how, I know how to row the Bee,
I know how to row the Bee, Bumble Bee, the Bumble Bee.

I know how to row the Bee, the Bumble Bee, the Bumble Bee.
I know how to row the boat, the Bumble Bee, the Bumble Bee.
I know how to row the boat, the Bumble Bee, the Bumble Bee.

I lost mama, I lost mama finger ring,
I lost mama, I lost my mama finger ring, finger ring, the finger ring, finger ring, the finger ring.
I know how to row the boat, Bumble Bee, Bumble Bee.

Spoken:
This is Miss Roberta Paul's, Paul's "boat song" that I have sung just now—the "Finger Ring." She like that. Sung by Mary C. Mann, Darien, Georgia, Macintosh county, April the twelfth, Nineteen twenty-six.

 

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