Stephen Griffith | Day 278 of the American Songbag Stay-at-Home Series

Here’s one in Carl Sandburg’s American Songbag I’m trying to learn on the dulcimer. It’s one of several religious songs from southern Appalachia that show a lot of African American influence and don’t quite fit into the usual categories like blues, spirituals, country and old-time — and it shares floating lyrics with some of them. An added bonus: When I was trying to work out the melody, I found it worked best when I tuned to DGD … and switching to that tuning (from the DAD lockstep) opens up a whole world of similar songs that Don Pedi of Madison County, N.C., has tabbed out in DGD.

Besides I just like the melody to “Ezekiel Weep.” It reminds me — improbably — of a medieval Christmas carol called Personent Hodie (you’ll hear the similarity at 0:20). This is clearly a tune I want to get to know better.

Let’s start with the lyrics. When I saw the song in Sandburg’s collection, I was struck by the second verse, which reminds me very much of a song called “Swing Low, Chariot” collected by Bascom Lamar Lunsford of Asheville, N.C.. For comparison’s sake, let’s put them next to each other:

Zek’l Weep (verse 2): Star in the east, star in the west. / Wish that star was in my breast. […]

Swing Low: Star in th east, swing low. / Star in the west, swing low. / Star shining in my breast. […]

In the liner notes to the Smithsonian Folkways record of his North Carolina ballads, Lunsford said, “I think it possibly is the foundation of the beautiful spiritual, ‘Swing Low, Sweet Chariot’.” Lunsford learned it from a student, and later from a recording in York, S.C., an up-country town between Spartanburg and Charlotte, N.C. Whether or not it is a direct source of the famous spiritual, which is usually credited to a Choctaw Indian freedman in Oklahoma, Lunsford’s song is one of several in the African American tradition with floating verses about chariots and stars in the east. The Ballad Index lists an African American variant collected in the low country, in Lydia Parrish’s, Slave Songs of the Georgia Sea Islands (1942) that has a very similar verse: “Swing low in the East … Swing low in the West … Morning star was a witness too.” And Dorothy Scarborough’s On the Trail of Negro FolkSongs (1925) has it, too, almost verbaim: “One star in de east, / One star in de west, / And I wish that star was in mah breast.”

I doubt we’ll ever be able to track down the origins and relationships of any of these songs, but it’s clear enough there were several songs in the oral tradition in the Carolinas and the adjacent Sea Islands of Georgia with floating lyrics about a star in the East. The image may owe something to the Christmas hymn “Star in the East” in William Walker’s Christian Harmony, since Walker was from Spartanburg, and his shape-note tunebooks were published decades before any of the oral variants were collected. But I have no proof of that.

Bottom line: “Zek’l Weep” sure sounds like the “star in the east” songs that were floating around in the African American oral tradition. That’s my hypothesis, and I’m stickin’ to it.

The other lyrics are also floating verses. The song begins, “Zek’l weep, Zek’l moan, / Flesh come a-creepin’ off o’ Zek’l bones.” Robert Waltz argues in the Ballad Index that, “Sandburg’s first verse here may be a backward telling of the Valley of Dry Bones in Ezek. 37:1-14. Or, again, it may not.” He notes that it was also collected, without music, in Dorothy Scarborough’s On the Trail of Negro FolkSongs (1925), where she attributed it to a prison work camp in South Carolina. “Scarborough’s text never mentions Ezekiel,” he adds, “but the rest seems to belong here. I think.”

Nothing about any of this is precise. But again, more evidence that Sandburg’s was one of a number of similar songs circulating in African American oral tradition.

A third stanza — “Hush little baby don’t you cry, / Know that your mother was born to die” — is also a floating verse that was collected all over the South, according to an especially authoritative summary in Wikipedia. Traditional dulcimer players will be interested to know Jean Ritchie is credited with popularizing the song.

Due to the melodic and lyrical diversity of other traditional recordings and the fact that Ritchie shared a stage with and directly influenced artists who would later record the song such as The Weavers and Joan Baez, it is likely that the popular version of the song descends from Jean Ritchie’s Kentucky family.

Again, I think the takeaway is, simply, there were a lot of these songs floating around in oral tradition.

Sandburg included “Zek’l Weep” in a section of American Songbag toward the end of the book. It includes mostly a verse or two here and a verse or two there from African American spirituals, lullabies, a prisoners’ work song, a charcoal seller’s street cry and a variant of the English folk song “Foggy Foggy Dew.” He titled it “Lovely People,” and he prefaced it with a quote from the French realist painter Jean-François Millet, “… The beautiful is that which is in place.” Sandburg said he learned it from an elderly house servant in Columbia, S.C.:

Rebecca was far in years but had a young singing heart and a clear singing voice. She was bashful, hesitant, at times, about going on with the songs as she took up the lines of a new song. There were moments when I felt about this homely, rather slightly built, black woman, the strength of earth and the patience of large, slow-changing landscapes. (447)

Sandburg must have liked the song. His daughter Helga included it in her songbook, Sweet Music, with this childhood reminiscence:

The soft poetic songs lie at the back of my memory. With them is the chink of horseshoes thrown by huge men at an iron stake. Ther are rearing sideboards and tables and chairs, the perfume of cigar smoke and hot coffee, and the deep voices of men talking and talking, on and on, roaring in aughter or anger. There is a banjo, or cigar strings are plucked knowingly.

Helga included only the second verse, by the way, and titled the song “Star in the East.” She transposed it up to G, up two semitones from the arrangement for her father’s Songbag.

More in Stephen Griffith’s FolkSongIndex.com at http://www.stephengriffith.com/folksongindex/zekl-weep/.

Another note — I think these “star in the east … star in the west” songs come out of an oral tradition that has a good claim to be called “Affriilachian” — which I’ll define broadly as blending African American and southern Appalachian traditions. I don’t want to be too dogmatic. The tradition centers around the Carolina Piedmont — think Carolina Chocolate Drops in Durham — and there are those variants in the low country to make me think twice.

But, dammit, southern Appalachian music is a blend of African and Scots-Irish musical traditions (among others). I first got really aware of it from Sparky and Rhonda Rucker of Maryville, Tenn., and blogged about it in an earlier iteration of Hogfiddle after they talked about it in a concert here in 2009.

“There are some instances in which a particular song has a predominantly white or predominantly black origin, but in many cases, the two traditions are often inextricable,” wrote Rhonda in the liner notes to their 2007 CD The Mountains Above and the Valley Below. “For example, in researching a song that people often associated with the ‘white tradition,’ we would find numerous sources that told how African Americans had been singing the song for so long that it was unclear who first sang the song (and vice versa).”

I think “Zek’l Weep” is one of those songs.

An ‘Affrilachian’ song? A random note or two

One word for these blended traditions traditions is “Affrilachian.” Wikipedia, that fount of all human knowledge, has a broad definition, in its page on “Affrilachia” that I think is useful — it’s “a term that spotlights the historic and current cultural contributions of African American artists, writers, and musicians in the Appalachian region […].”

In Berea College Magazine, a history of the word: “In 1991, Frank X Walker, an experienced playwright and visual artist, and a budding poet, was confronted with the reality that Appalachian—according to Webster’s Dictionary—referred only to “white residents from the mountains.” As a native of Danville, Ky., he felt that, like his white peers, he too was creating the great shadow of the mountains—shouldn’t his work matter and be counted within Appalachian heritage? […]” It includes one of Walker’s poems, “Kentucke.” An excerpt.

we are the amen
in church hill downs
the mint
in the julep
we put the heat
in the hotbrown
and
gave it color
indeed
some of the bluegrass
is black

Works Cited

“Affricalachia.” Wikipedia. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Affrilachia.

Peter Ellertsen, “Blacks, whites and Southern old-time music,” Hogfiddle, Sept. 27, 2009 http://hogfiddle.blogspot.com/2009/09/blacks-whites-and-southern-old-time.html.

Bascom Lamar Lunsford, [liner notes] Ballads, Banjo Tunes, and Sacred Songs of Western North Carolina. Smithsonian Folkways Records, 1996 https://folkways-media.si.edu/liner_notes/smithsonian_folkways/SFW40082.pdf.

Carl Sandburg, American Songbag. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1990. 447, 449

Helga Sandburg, Sweet Music: A Book of Family Reminiscence and Song. New York: Dial Press, 1963. 10-11.

“Hush Little Baby,” Wikipedia https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hush,_Little_Baby.

Dorothy Scarborough, On the Trail of Negro Folk-Songs. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1925. 209. https://archive.org/details/ontrailofnegrofo00scar/page/208/mode/2up.

“Swing Low, Sweet Chariot,” Wikipedia https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Swing_Low,_Sweet_Chariot.

Robert B. Waltz and David G. Engle, Ballad Index http://www.fresnostate.edu/folklore/ballads/San449.html

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