Study Guide

Mary Don't You Weep Introduction

Mary Don't You Weep Introduction

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

ArtistTraditional/Various Artists
YearWritten ca. 1800–1860
Writer(s)Traditional
Learn to play

Music Video

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Influences on Traditional/Various Artists

"Mary Don't You Weep" predates the modern popular music chart system by as much as a century, but that hasn't stopped groups such as the Swan Silvertones or Sam Cooke and the Soul Stirrers from recording popular versions of the song. 

Even before the advent of recording technology, "Mary Don't You Weep" was a popular spiritual sung at communal events such as church services and fundraising concerts. It has inspired many Americans, Black and white, to persevere in the face of extreme hardships.

Influenced by Traditional/Various Artists

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Mary Don't You Weep Resources

Books

Michael L. Cooper, Slave Spirituals and the Jubilee Singers (2001)
This book for younger readers explores both the development of spirituals within slave communities and the role of the Fisk Jubilee Singers in introducing white audiences to this "indigenous" American genre.

James Weldon Johnson and J. Rosamond Johnson, The Books of American N**** Spirituals (1925)
First published in 1925, this book is still considered a classic. The Johnsons provide the words and music for more than 100 spirituals, as well as contextual information to assist their interpretation.

Shane White and Graham White, The Sounds of Slavery: Discovering African American History through Songs, Sermons, and Speech (2006)
This ambitious book attempts to reconstruct the sounds of slave society. Spirituals, work songs, prayers, and even the moans of slaves being whipped are reconstructed through the use of narratives and recordings made in the 1930s. An accompanying CD brings these sounds off of the written page.

Images

The Fisk Jubilee Singers
The trailblazing choir, ca. 1871

The Fisk Jubilee Singers in London
Great Britain's Queen Victoria was so impressed by the singers that she asked her court painter, Edmund Havel, to paint them.

Jubilee Hall
This building was constructed at Fisk University with money earned by the school's choir.

The Swan Silvertones
The gospel group that came out of the coal mines of West Virginia.

Movies & TV

The Jubilee Singers: Sacrifice and Glory (2000)
This episode in the award-winning PBS series American Experience follows the travels of the Jubilee Singers as they set out to save their school, introducing white audiences to African-American spirituals in the process.

The Spirituals (2007)
This short documentary explores the history and meaning of the spiritual while following the American Spiritual Ensemble as they tour the Deep South.

Websites

N**** Spirituals
This useful little site provides a historical overview of spirituals, as well as information on various composers, singers, and songs.

Fisk Jubilee Singers
The Fisk Jubilee Singers still represent Fisk University, and they still record and tour. Their official site offers a brief history of the group and current tour information.

Video & Audio

The Caravans, "Mary Don't You Weep"
This is the gospel group's popular 1950s rendition.

Bruce Springsteen, "Mary Don't You Weep"
The Boss gave the spiritual a rock twist in 2005.

The Swan Silvertones, "Mary Don't You Weep"
Yet another great rendition of this tune.

Simon and Garfunkel, "Bridge Over Troubled Water"
This Simon and Garfunkel hit was inspired by the Swan Silvertones' rendition of "Mary Don't You Weep."

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