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Intro

In a Nutshell

Southern slaves wrote more than a hundred spirituals in the decades before the Civil War. Voicing both sorrow and hope, looking for both liberation and revenge, these songs remain a powerful legacy of this tragic institution.

Perhaps no spiritual has periodically re-surfaced with as much impact as “Mary Don’t You Weep.” It played an important part in African American history during the 1870s and again in the 1950s. It repeatedly found new audiences in America and Europe, and it continued to inspire black and white singers and songwriters more than a century after America’s last slave had been freed.

“Mary Don’t You Weep” is a song with a long and important history. This history might have begun on the plantations of the antebellum South, but it ran through Nashville, Tennessee, the coal region of West Virginia, the streets of Selma, Alabama, and the folk clubs of Greenwich Village, New York, on its way to being enshrined as an American institution.

About the Song

Artist Musician(s)
Album
YearWritten ca. 1800-1860
Label
Writer(s)Traditional
Producer(s)
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Shmoop Connections

Explore the ways this song connects with the world and with other topics on Shmoop
While its exact origins remain mostly unknown, it’s possible that “Mary Don’t You Weep” has been sung for over two centuries. The song was most likely composed by Southern slaves during the , and its history weaves in and out of several important events and movements within America’s past. Slaves used spirituals like “Mary Don’t You Weep” to strengthen their communities and comfort one another. They found that the struggles of the Israelites that they learned from the Bible paralleled their own lives, and songs derived from Bible stories drew fewer objections from slave owners. Many of these spirituals survived slavery and continued to maintain a strong presence in African American history.

In the years following the Civil War, church and faith remained an important part of African America culture, and songs like “Mary Don’t You Weep” continued to be popular. Even as threatened many black Americans’ newfound freedoms, church communities kept hope alive that better times were approaching.

“Mary Don’t You Weep” continued to make dramatic appearances in American history into the 20th century. Revived in the early half of the century by popular gospel groups like , the song was embraced by civil rights activists in their campaign against segregation. Its message of hope and liberation resonated with reformers intent on opening educational, political, and economic doors for African Americans.

The song continued to make its mark on artists towards the end of the 20th century and into the 21st. Black writer James Baldwin—known to have been close with — found in its lyrics a dark prophecy for a racially divided America. White folk singers like argued that the song was American, not just African American. Songwriter drew special inspiration from the song in composing one of his biggest hits, “Bridge over Troubled Water.” Rock superstar even included a cover of “Mary Don’t You Weep” on his 2006 album We Shall Overcome: The Seeger Sessions.

On the Charts

It’s possible that “Mary Don’t You Weep” predates the modern popular music chart system by over a century. While there have been countless covers of the song, some of which have had moderate mainstream success, it remains predominately a religious spiritual sung at communal gatherings such as church services and political rallies.
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