Swan Arcade recorded this song on their 1986 album Diving for Pearls, and it’s an outstanding example of their exuberant, no-holds-barred approach to harmony singing. I got the words from Hymnary.org (other online hymnals are available) from where I learn that it was written in 1911 by the prolific American hymn-writer Charles Austin Miles (1868-1946). I don’t know where Swan Arcade learned it from, but there are various recordings you can find online, including one by the Sons Of The Pioneers, with Roy Rogers on vocals. It’s OK, but not a patch on the Swan Arcade version.
I worked out some time ago that this would sound great on a C/G anglo – but that I couldn’t actually sing it comfortably in C. So when I asked Bampton Morris Fool Rob Fidler if I might borrow his Bb/F instrument, recording this song was uppermost in my mind. I must confess I still haven’t learned the words properly, but I thought I’d better get it recorded sooner rather than later – one of these days Rob is going to ask for his concertina back!
I first sang this at a West Gallery workshop at the Sidmouth Festival, circa 1995, led by Gordon Ashman. I then learned it from the 1997 collection West Gallery Harmony, which Gordon edited with his wife Isabella. Gordon was clearly very fond of the hymn, as it’s stretching things really to call it a West Gallery piece. The words were written by the English novelist and poet Sarah Doudney. First published as a poem in 1871, the words were then set to music by Ira D. Sankey (of Sankey & Moody fame) and included in his Sacred Songs and Solos(first published in 1873).
Sankey – Sacred Songs and Solos
Such was the popularity of Sacred Songs and Solos that it grew progressively in size, from a mere 24 pages in 1873, until by 1903 it contained 1200 songs. When you see them on the printed page – well, when I see them on the page, at any rate – most Sankey & Moody hymns appear to be dreadful nineteenth century sentimental slush, with page after page of hymns with exclamation marks in the title: ‘Closer, Lord to Thee!’, ‘Then shall my Heart keep Singing!’, ‘I am Trusting Thee, Lord Jesus!’, ‘Resting in the Everlasting Arms!’, ‘Ring the Bells of Heaven!’. But they were immensely popular at the time, at least in part, I’m sure, because so many of them provided the opportunity for a jolly good sing. The expanded editions included many popular pieces not written by Sankey or Moody – ‘Bringing in the Sheaves’ and ‘Nearer, my God to thee’, for example – but I’m sure the book contains many other lesser-known belters. And fortunately some people on the folk scene – notably members of the Waterson:Carthy/Swan Arcade/Blue Murder/Coope Boyes & Simpson axis – are able to sort the wheat from the chaff: the 1200 pieces include such gems as ‘Will there be any Stars in my Crown’, ‘Only Remembered’, and ‘Deliverance will come’.
In the 1960s, the Incredible String Band renamed a song called I Bid You Goodnight which they learned from Jody Stecher’s recordings of the great Bahamian guitarist Joseph Spence and his family, the Pinder family, and the song became, for some folkies, one of those great standards. A year or two ago John Howson visited Staithes to record the Fisherman’s Choir, and was accompanied by Maggie Hunt who, at the same time, was interviewing the individuals involved. During conversations, a Mr Willie Wright sang a snatch of the Sankey hymn Sleep On Beloved which he described as a lowering down song at funerals, and which was clearly the same song as I Bid You Goodnight but in an earlier form, and when Norma heard it, she went to see Willie, who kindly proved her with the other verses. When we sang the song to Jody Stecher, he was enormously pleased, not least because its function as a funeral song in the Bahamian fishing community was identical to that in its North Yorkshire counterpart.
You can hear Joseph Spence and the Pinder Family singing ‘I Bid You Goodnight’ on YouTube (as well as numerous other versions, by everyone from The Grateful Dead to The Dixie Hummingbirds).
In the summer of 1980 my friend Adrian Russell put together a harmony quintet, performing under the name of Bright Sparkles in the Churchyard. The group consisted of Adrian, myself, Gill Harrison, Alison Tebbs and Tim Bull. The following year Richard Wren was drafted in as bass, to replace Tim, who was unavailable. We performed exclusively American religious music, including at least a couple of Sacred Harp numbers, and several from the camp meeting repertoire. Songs I particularly remember are the stomping ‘Hard Times’ (“Ain’t it hard times, tribulation, Ain’t it hard times, I’m going to live with God”) and the gloriously repetitive ‘I’m a witness for my Lord’. The group’s name came from this song, which in fact was not one we ever sang.
I’m not entirely sure we sang ‘Roll Jordan Roll’ as a group piece, but I certainly learned it from Adrian around this time. He found it in a Fisk Jubilee Singers’ Song Book – possibly this one.
‘Roll. Jordan, Roll’ from ‘Jubilee songs: as sung by the Jubilee singers, of Fisk University, (Nashville, Tenn.) under the auspices of the American Missionary Association’. From the Internet Archive.
The Fisk Jubilee Singers were a well-known vocal ensemble in the late nineteenth century, and they are still going strong today. They were formed in 1871 to raise money for Fisk University, which had been founded after the Civil War to provide higher education for freed slaves. The Singers sang spirituals, as well as some Stephen Foster numbers, and they toured not only the States but in Britain and Europe.
1899 Fisk Negro Spirituals Songbook. Song no. 7 Roll Jordan Roll (Women’s Jazz Archive collection, Swansea Metropolitan University).
When I sing songs like this, or ‘Idumea’, it is purely for the power and beauty of the tune, and the words as poetry; not because I have a belief in any kind of life hereafter. However, at the end of a week in which we buried my mother, this seems an appropriate song to post.
Almeda Riddle at her home, 1959, photographed by Alan Lomax.
All the versions I had heard previously were resolutely in the minor key. One thing I like about Granny Riddle’s version is that it is essentially in the major key, but with plenty of flattened and – better still – ambiguous notes. These tonal ambiguities are very much a part of the singer’s vocal style, and the power of the performance overall, but I have found it difficult to reproduce them without it sounding like I’m trying to do an impression of an Arkansas grandmother. So I’ve tried to sing the song in a way that captures the spirit of Almeda Riddle’s version, while staying true to the way I normally sing. Not sure how successful I’ve been in this, but it’s too good a song not to sing.
Incidentally, I recently stumbled across this fine solo performance of the song by Bill Monroe which, it strikes me, is in very much the same vein as Almeda Riddle’s.
And here’s one of several Sacred Harp performances you can find on the web.
‘Job, the patient man’ – ballad sheet from the Bodleian collection
Now that we’re into advent, I think I’m allowed to post a carol. Actually, although this is a carol, there’s nothing particularly Christmassy about it; like a lot of folk carols it focuses more on the importance of leading an upright, Christian life.
The carol is better known I think as ‘Come all you worthy Christian men’, while the editors of the Oxford Book of Carols gave it the title ‘Job’. This version is in the Francis Collinson collection, accessible via the EFDSS Take Six archive. It was “collected from Mrs Lurcock of Bredgar, Kent, and noted down by Miss Alice Travers of Bredgar”. George Frampton, who first brought Collinson’s Kentish MSS to my attention, has the singer as Frances Lurcock, and I’ve no doubt he has done the research to back this up. Bredgar is a village just South of Sittingbourne; or, these days, just South of the M2 motorway.
I have collated the words with the version in the Oxford Book of Carols, which Sharp collected from Mrs Eliza Woodberry, of Ash Priors, Somerset.
I recorded this with Magpie Lane on our CD Six for Gold, and it is in the setlist for our Christmas shows this year – over the next couple of weekends we are playing at Woking, Oxford and Reading; see www.magpielane.co.uk for details.