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"Mary Don't You Weep" is an old African-American spiritual. Predating the Civil War, the song offered religious comfort to American slaves while they were held in bondage. The song's importance did not end with emancipation, though. It played a very specific part in advancing African-American goals well into the 20th century, as well, and it still inspires both Black and white audiences and performers.
Like most spirituals, the precise origins of "Mary Don't You Weep" are unknown. It is unclear who wrote it, who first sang it, and exactly where and when the music was composed. Most music scholars believe that it was one of more than 100 spirituals constructed within Southern slave communities during the first half of the 19th century.
"Mary Don't You Weep" offered both solace and hope to the slaves who sang it. The Biblical Mary at the center of the song was Mary of Bethany (not Mary of Nazareth, Jesus' mother, or Mary Magdalene, his famous follower). According to the Book of John, when Mary met Jesus on his visit to the village of Bethany, she was distraught by the recent death of her brother. Jesus assured her that Lazarus would eventually find new life, but Mary's weeping so moved Jesus that he too wept, and so he led her to Lazarus', tomb where he raised the man immediately from the dead.
When slaves sang "Mary Don't You Weep," they were reminded that God rewards his believers. The song stressed that resurrection was promised, but it also focused on the idea that God protected his people and punished their enemies. "Pharaoh's army got drowned," the lyrics repeated over and over again. According to Book of Exodus, the army of the powerful Egyptian ruler drowned in the Red Sea. They were hot pursuit of the children of Israel, God's chosen people, as the latter attempted to flee to the Promised Land. They had been held as slaves for several centuries by the Egyptians, and with Moses' help and leadership, they were finally escaping.
Pressed up against the Red Sea and with the Pharaoh's army at their heels, though, they seemed doomed. At that moment, Moses raised his staff and parted the sea, allowing the children of Israel to cross. When the Egyptians tried to follow, the returning waters swallowed them.
Some scholars have argued that spirituals did more than offer a promise of eventual redemption; they also offered specific strategies—even maps—needed to escape. "Wade in the Water" taught runaway slaves how to throw off the bloodhounds sent to track them down.
"Swing Low, Sweet Chariot" was sung to alert slaves that a conductor from the Underground Railroad would be arriving soon. "Follow the Drinking Gourd" provided slaves with an elaborate coded map that would lead them to the North and freedom. The refrain told them to keep their eye on the Big Dipper (the drinking gourd), as the stars marking the edge of its cup pointed to Polaris, the North Star. Other lines offered even more specific directions. "The river ends between two hills" taught runaways that, by following the Tombigbee River through Mississippi, they would reach the twin-coned Woodall Mountain. From there they would see "another river on the other side," the Tennessee River, which would lead them to Illinois and freedom.
"Mary Don't You Weep" was not one of these coded songs; it offered a more general type of advice. Perhaps for that reason, it continued to resonate with African Americans even after they were emancipated during the Civil War. (Civil rights activists in the 1960s didn't really need to "follow the drinking gourd" anymore; they could just hop on a bus.) It was among the spirituals sung by the Fisk Jubilee Singers during their historic tours of the 1870s. These tours introduced white audiences in America and Europe to this African-American genre. In the process, these spirituals advanced a more specific goal; they saved Fisk University.
Fisk University traces its origins to the final months of the Civil War. Realizing that the newly freed slaves would need education and that they would be anxious to be educated, the American Missionary Association opened the Fisk Free Colored School in 1865. They named the school after Clinton Fisk, a Union officer and Freedmen's Bureau administrator who had given the school its first campus, a set of army barracks in Nashville, Tennessee. The school's students ranged in age from seven to 70, but within a year, Fisk had sharpened its purpose. Realizing that a corps of Black teachers was needed to deliver education throughout the South, the school was chartered in 1867 as Fisk University with an emphasis on teacher preparation.
The school was hugely successful in drawing students, but it struggled financially. Its $12/month tuition was beyond the reach of most students' families (the average farm wage was about $8/month). By 1871, the school was on the verge of collapse. Following the example set by slaves in the recent past, Fisk officials looked to redemption through song. They formed a student choir, gave the singers the last $50 in the school treasury, and sent them out on the road.
All but two of the original nine singers were former slaves. They knew hard times and brought their own dramatic stories to their mission. Ella Sheppard, the choir's 18-year-old assistant director, had barely survived slavery. When young Ella's mother had discovered that their mistress had trained the girl to spy on her family, she marched to the river with the intention of drowning herself and her child. Only the intervention of an old aunt had saved them, teaching young Ella that life is a precarious thing, but salvation is always possible.
Initially, the choir met only limited success. Over the first months, the touring singers barely covered expenses, and they encountered considerable resistance from whites not yet ready for emancipation. Yet even this resistance offered an occasional reason for hope. According to one account, the choir once encountered an unusually hostile mob at a railroad station. Their only defense was to start singing, and it worked. One-by-one the jeering mob fell silent. When the students finished, a sobbing man asked them to continue.
At Oberlin College, a school famous for its pre-Civil War anti-slavery activism, the Fisk singers found their first real success while singing before a convention of Christian ministers. These ministers carried word of the powerful singing group home, and soon the newly named Jubilee Singers had a calendar full of invitations. At Oberlin the group also discovered what sort of music most moved their audiences. Initially they had filled their program with conventional ballads, but at Oberlin they had inserted more spirituals into their performance, and it was these songs that most moved their audience. From that point forward, they filled their program with spirituals such as "Swing Low, Sweet Chariot," "Steal Away," "Were You There When They Crucified My Lord," and "Mary Don't You Weep."
Over the next year, the Jubilee Singers raised more than $40,000, a saving fortune for Fisk University. In Washington, D.C., they sang for President Ulysses S. Grant and members of Congress. They sailed to England, where they sang for the Queen. Over the next several years, the singers continued to tour the U.S. and Europe, performing in Switzerland, Holland, and Germany. As missionaries for Fisk, they raised more than $150,000, and as spokespersons for Black education and ambassadors for the spiritual, they demonstrated both the possibilities and contributions of African Americans within American life.
In 1915, the Fisk Jubilee singers recorded "Mary Don't You Weep." The record helped preserve the song for yet another generation, something that had not been possible before the advent of recording technology. Over 40 years later, in 1958, popular gospel group the Caravans recorded the song. The next year, the Swan Silvertones recorded an even more popular rendition. The Silvertones had formed in West Virginia in 1938.
Originally a group of gospel-singing coalminers, the quartet earned a local reputation , which led to a regular spot on a Tennessee radio show. They tacked on the name of the show's sponsor—Swan Bakery—and soon these former miners were a nationally known group. They never got rich (they usually performed at churches, or occasionally a club like the Apollo, and they often only earned $20 for a performance), but their reputation stretched across the nation. Their records were popular, and "Mary Don't You Weep" was their biggest hit.
The Swan Silvertones' record introduced yet another new generation to the old spiritual, just as they Fisk singers had done before them. And during the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s, the song's message struck a powerful chord. It inspired activists with its reminder that God had led oppressed people to freedom before, it consoled those suffering under oppression with the message that God rewarded the faithful, and it answered those demanding justice with the promise that the wicked would be destroyed. "The pharaoh's army got drowned," and those who continued to torment God's people would be punished.
While "Mary Don't You Weep" spoke most powerfully to African Americans campaigning for their rights, white performers also adopted the song. Folk singers Burl Ives and Pete Seeger recorded the song, suggesting that its message of freedom and redemption had value for all races. In 1970, the song inspired another white songwriter, Paul Simon, to compose a less religious, but equally poignant song about friendship. The Swan Silvertones' recording of "Mary Don't You Weep" moved Simon. He was particularly struck by one line that had been ad libbed by Silvertones lead singer Claude Jeter: "I'll be a bridge over deep water if you trust in my name." The line inspired Simon to write one of his biggest hits, "Bridge over Troubled Water."
The message within Simon's song differed from that within "Mary Don't You Weep." It was not particularly religious, and it was more about friendship than redemption. But like the older spiritual, it was written to provide solace and hope. Simon and his longtime musical partner Art Garfunkel were on the verge of splitting up, but Simon promised that he would always be there for his old friend.
"Mary Don't You Weep" continues to play a part in America's musical history. For close to 200 years—and possibly more—the song has offered comfort and inspiration to those who feel downtrodden. It moved from the plantation to one of America's first Black colleges palaces and concert halls throughout the United States and Europe. Civil rights activists in the 1950s and folk singers and songwriters in the 1960s and 1970s embraced the song with equal fervor. If history is any guide, the song will continue to find an audience well into the 21st century. "Mary Don't You Weep" might even resurface as the anthem for a future group searching for hope, freedom, and redemption—and maybe a way to cross a sea without getting wet.