Or, to put it another way:
Four takes on, ‘Michael Row The Boat Ashore’
‘… They were tones, loud, long and deep, breathing the prayer and complaint of souls boiling over with the bitterest anguish.’ (Frederick Douglas)
‘And at that time shall Michael stand up, the great Prince which standeth for the children of thy people: and there shall be a time of trouble, such as there never was since there was a nation even to that same time: and at that time thy people shall be delivered, everyone shall be found written in the book.
And many of them that sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake, some to eternal life, and some to shame and everlasting contempt.’.
(Book of Daniel Chapter 12 King James Version)
‘Jordan River is deep and wide, hallelujah.
Meet my mother on the other side, hallelujah
Jordan River is chilly and cold, hallelujah,
Chills the body but not the soul, Hallelujah!’
I began my journey through primary education in the late 1950s with the good Nuns (and they were good Nuns) of the Convent of St Edwards in Paddington, London; which, though I was unaware of it at the time, was a only a couple of hundred yards from EMI’s Abbey Road Studios soon to be made famous by four lads from Liverpool.
I was a pupil at St Edwards from 1959 until the brutal (by UK standards) Winter of 1962/63 when our family made the move to leafy, suburban Harrow. I have two particularly vivid memories of my time at St Edwards. First, the disturbing thrill of reading a children’s version of the great Anglo-Saxon poem, ‘Beowulf’ and somehow realising that there was a magical transformative power in poetry and that this was a doorway to another life – the life of the imagination.
Second, I remember the hush that descended as we carefully placed our pens in our ink wells and settled down to listen to the Schools Music Programme Service of the BBC. The cloth covered radio speaker sat high on the class wall, out of reach of curious hands and from its cavernous depths there emerged songs and tunes which would lodge deep, deeper than I could ever have imagined, into my consciousness.
I remember listening to such works as: Stephen Foster’s, ‘Camptown Races’, the nursery rhyme, ‘Lavender Blue Dilly Dilly’, the rustic folk songs from the North East of England, ‘Bobby Shafto’ and ‘When The Boat Comes In’, the royally penned English anthem, ‘Green Sleeves’ and the American ballad (indeed a murder ballad!), ‘Tom Dooley’. These songs emerging from the mysterious ether entered my blood stream and permanently took up residence becoming as familiar as my own hands in front of me.
Above all I recall listening to and singing lustily along to a song I was told was a, ‘Spiritual’ called, Michael Row The Boat Ashore’. Something in this song from the Civil War era in America caught and permanently held my attention so that eventually I am now moved to trace its history and present several versions here on the Jukebox.
Spirituals are a marvellous example of American invention blending of several streams of cultural history to create something vivid, vital and new. Spirituals emerged from the black slave community as a thrilling synthesis of religious, physical and political experience. They frequently concern a downtrodden peoples journey, in hope and faith, from exile to salvation and deliverance in a promised land where the righteous will be reunited with their stolen families and departed loved ones.
In an act of supreme creativity Christian hymns and biblical texts were yoked to ancient African singing styles and melodic accents to produce something truly new and culturally particular. Spiritual are the primary artefacts of the enormous African-American contribution to modern American popular culture.
We shall never know when, ‘Michael Row The Boat Ashore’ was composed or who it’s author was. But, we can say that the first historical record we have of it comes from the 1867, ‘Slave Songs Of The United States’ collection by Charles Pickford Ware, William Francis Allen and Lucy McKim Garrison. It seems that Ware first heard the song and transcribed a version during his stay on St Helena Island, South Carolina while he oversaw the plantations abandoned by fleeing Confederates in 1862.
‘Michael’ along with other spirituals (many collected from slaves Wallace and Minerva Wills by the Reverend Alexander Reid) such as, ‘Swing Low Sweet Chariot’, ‘Roll, Jordan, Roll’ and, ‘Steal Away To Jesus’ we’re popularised both in America and Europe from the 1870s by Nashville’s Fisk University Jubilee Singers through highly successful concert tours and a best selling songbook.
Spirituals began to be adopted as folk songs and vehicles of social solidarity and protest from the 1930s onwards by idealistic young white and black singers and musicians as part of what has come to be known as the, ‘Folk Revival’. For many white artists their initial encounters with the cultures evoked in black Spirituals and blues and the Appalachian instrumental and ballad traditions proved nothing less than a deeply affecting and transformative conversion experience from which they never wished to recover!
Songs that would form the Folk Revival songbook were carried and passed on, transmitted, in many different ways. In the curled pages of old ballad books, across the smoky campfire, hanging in the air of the chapel and echoing from the store front church. Some from the blues tradition were half-heard among the din of the honky-tonk, the shebeen and the jazz dive. Some were learned at the knee from the elders, some from local and travelling ne’er do wells, some overheard from the parlour radio, some blasted out from speeding cars and neon bright Jukeboxes. A good song will find a way to be heard and sung.
Pete Seeger, whose ‘Plain Folks’ and almost schoolmasterly sing a long version of Michael as featured above was a key figure in the folk revival through his indefatigable worldwide touring and his membership of important groups such as the Almanac Singers and The Weavers. Pete, who collaborated on the writing and/or popularisation of the folk standards, ‘Where Have All The Flowers Gone’, ‘Turn, Turn, Turn’, ‘If I Had A Hammer’ and the Civil Rights anthem, ‘We Shall Overcome’ quickly saw the potential in, ‘Michael’ when he learned it from Tony Saletan in the early 1950s.
Everywhere Pete went he sang the song and seeded a thousand folk music careers from his audiences at colleges, camp fire meetings and union rallies. For Pete, fighting the good fight with every breath in his body, songs were working tools to promote social solidarity and change. If you want to learn the basic repertoire of the folk revival Pete, with his no frills style and transparent sincerity, generosity and commitment is your only man!
Coming from a privileged academic and religiously rigorous family Pete became for over seven decades a warrior for truth, justice, peace, civil rights and the environment armed only with a long necked banjo and endless faith in the people and the future. With characteristic eloquence Barrack Obama eulogised him as, ‘America’s tuning fork’ and thanked him for, ‘… Reminding us where we come from and where we need to go’.
I think the Archangel Michael would easily have recognised the lanky, upright figure carrying a banjo who waded across the Jordan at the end of January 2014!
Listening to Pete Seeger in concert and hearing ‘Michael’ on the radio in the early 1960s was an impossibly handsome and talented young black American of Caribbean heritage called Harry Belafonte who would go on to have an extraordinary career as a singer, actor and humanitarian.
Harry’s version has a gospel fervour and burns with political commitment. Harry was a remarkably fluent and versatile performer who could sell any type of song with beguiling charm. His breakthrough Calypso and live at Carnegie Hall records were multi million sellers that took up residence in American Hi-Fi cabinets throughout the nation. Harry loved the limelight and was an authentic show business Prince but behind the scenes he was also a very important and influential figure in the civil rights movement. He was a friend and confidant of Martin Luther King providing the bail money to get MLK out of Birmingham Jail and the insurance policy that provided for his widow after his death. In addition he quietly financed the Freedom Riders campaign that sought to increase voter registration from the black community and challenge head on the worst excesses of the bull headed, bull necked, Jim Crow South.
In light of this it is no surprise that Harry’s, ‘Michael’ enjoins its listeners, as they wait for the Archangel to row the boat ashore, to, ‘Hold that line in Arkansas’ and trumpets the message that, like Joshua at Jericho, Alabama will be the next to go. As for Mississippi, while the buses speed south, it’s time to kneel and pray. In my estimation, Harry Belafonte is a very fine artist but an even greater man.
Our third take on,’Michael’ is provided by Johnny Rivers: a much underestimated artist who had an unerring ear for a fine song and the ability to perform material from widely differing genres with an attack and flair that saw him rack up 17 top 40 hits from 1964 to 1977 including the gorgeous number 1 ballad, ‘Poor Side of Town’ and iconic driving rockers like, ‘Memphis’ and, ‘Secret Agent Man’.
Johnny’s residency at the Whisky A Go Go club in Hollywood drew a loyal crowd, including numerous rock luminaries, who recognised that Johnny had a rock and roll heart and a killer band. On record his band included stellar figures from the LA, ‘Wrecking Crew’ stable including Hal Blaine on the drums, Joe Osborn on bass and Larry Knetchel on keyboards.
A Johnny Rivers record never out stays its welcome and I usually find, as with this storming take on, ‘Michael’ that I’m reaching for the repeat button as soon as the first second of silence hits me when the record finishes.
The final version of, ‘Michael’ I have chosen comes from the very hard working and productive roots music missionary, Eric Bibb. Eric grew up at the epicentre of the folk revival in the early 1960’s – New York CIty’s Greenwich Village. He was very well connected in this world with his father Leon being an actor and singer, his uncle John Lewis being a member of the Modern Jazz Quartet and his godfather being none other than Paul Robeson!
Eric, born in 1951, began to perform in his early teens and was making his recording debut by his middle twenties. He has proved a very deft artist who is at home in the gospel, folk and blues traditions. At his best, as on the version of, ‘Michael’ above he achieves a kind of meditative grace that searches out the heart and soul of a song so that a work you have heard a thousand times can suddenly appear fresh and alive with new potential and meaning.
A song, a Spiritual, a folk anthem, a testament to the human spirit, like, ‘Michael Row The Boat Ashore’ will never run dry. For we will always hope that we will meet again with our loved ones who have already crossed the Jordan. Downtrodden peoples will always need to have faith that there is indeed salvation and deliverance ahead even if it often seems so very far away.
Finally, Most of us will hope that when we step gingerly into eternity’s boat that our ferryman will be the Archangel Michael and that he will carry us safely home across the chilly and cold Jordan River.
This post dedicated to Sister Calasanctius, Sister Mary Monica and Sister Mary Mildred who were all extremely kind and indulgent to a quiet boy who seemed forever lost in dreams of poetry and songs when he should have been paying attention to arithmetic and his times tables!
One Degree of Bob Dylan:
Unsurprisingly given their association with the Folk Revival and the hectic days of the early 1960s all the above artists have connections with Bob Dylan, the Keeper of American Song.
Pete Seeger was an early and passionate advocate for the young Bob’s exploding talents and he helped to open doors and make introductions to key figures in the Big Apple’s folk elites.
Harry Belafonte had a unknown Bob play harmonica on, ‘Midnight Special’ marking Bob’s debut on record. In his wonderfully artful and characteristically enigmatic work of autobiography, ‘Chronicles’ Bob pays a very heartfelt, indeed effusive, tribute to Harry:
‘Harry was the best balladeer in the land and everybody knew it. He was a fantastic artist … He had ideals and made you feel you’re part of the human race. There never was a performer who crossed so many lines as Harry.
‘ … Everything about him was gigantic … With Belafonte I felt like I’d become anointed in some kind of way … Harry was that rare type of character that radiates greatness, and you hope some of it rubs off on you. The man commands respect.’
Johnny Rivers recorded a fine version of Bob’s magisterial put down song, ‘Positively Fourth Street’. Bob called it the favourite of all versions of his songs and said it was obvious that they were from the same side of town and were from the same musical family.
Eric Bibb came across Bob through his Greenwich Village connections. In one of his first bands he played with Bill Lee (father of Film Director Spike) who played on Bob’s Freewheeling’ LP sessions. Eric also had a direct meeting with Bob when he was only 11. Apparently Bob advised the precocious Eric that when it came to guitar playing he should, ‘Keep it simple, forget all that fancy stuff’.