The History and Reception of “Roll Jordan, Roll”

After a discussion on the origins of black spirituals I was left questioning the origins of specific spirituals like “Roll Jordan, Roll”. I found, although not very surprising, that “Roll Jordan, Roll” was created by an european man by the name of Charles Wesley in the eighteenth century. He was a methodist preacher and after reading the articles by Jackson and Krehbiel, which have the goal of tackling this question of origin, I was not at all surprised that the origins of the song came from a white, protestant background. What I am left wondering is how “Roll Jordan, Roll” made it’s way to the slave south of the mid to late nineteenth century.
What I have found through my search in pursuit of answering my wonder is that the song may have been used as an effort to christianize the slaves. What I mean is the song wasn’t the sole proprietor in christianizing but was apart of a curriculum in doing so. It seems that the song had gone through an evolution and rather than being a christianizing song to the slaves, it was turned into a song of sorrow or conduit for abolitionism.
The religious allegories of the song had become a story of escaping slavery. There are many adaptations of the song, but the idea of the song being one of being delivered from slavery remains. The photo below is a documentation of one adaptation of the song. It was recorded into the Slave Songs of the United States (1867). 

Slave Songs of the United States by William Francis Allen

“Roll Jordan, Roll” was eventually widely accepted as a former slave song rather than methodist spiritual. Below is a excerpt from a newspaper article from 1880. Whomever wrote it acknowledges that the songs sung by the Jubilee Singers, included “Roll Jordan, Roll” originated from “slavery times”, not the old English Methodists.
I suppose for me “Roll Jordan, Roll” can not be owned by any race. It is a black spiritual as well as a Methodist hymn.
Works Cited and Consulted:
“The National Capital. Wether–Society–The Jubilee Singers.” Weekly Louisianian (New Orleans), March 20, 1880. Accessed March 20, 2018. African American Newspapers.
“Roll Jordan Roll: A Community in Song and Sound.” The Black Atlantic. March 18, 2014. Accessed March 20, 2018. https://sites.duke.edu/blackatlantic/2014/03/18/roll-jordan-roll-a-community-in-song-and-sound/.
“The River Jordan in Early African American Spirituals by Daniel L. Smith-Christopher.” River Jordan in Early African American Spirituals. Accessed March 20, 2018. http://www.bibleodyssey.org/places/related-articles/river-jordan-in-early-african-american-spirituals.
“Slave Songs of the United South.” William Francis Allen, 1830-1889, Charles Pickard Ware, 1840-1921, and Lucy McKim Garrison, 1842-1877. Slave Songs of the United States. Accessed March 20, 2018. http://docsouth.unc.edu/church/allen/allen.html#slsong1.

Transmission of “Nobody know(s) the(de) Trouble I(‘ve) See(n)”

As former slaves entered American culture and society as citizens with slightly more rights after the Civil War and Reconstruction they created bands and groups for themselves to play in. In the late 19th and early 20th century military bands, small orchestras, and “stock bands” were formed mostly performing popular music of the day as well as notable Classical music such as Mozart Operas.

Claflin University Brass Band. Picture collected for the 1900 Paris Exposition

Claflin University Brass Band. Picture collected for the 1900 Paris Exposition <http://www.loc.gov/pictures/item/2001705781>

 

At this time spiritual music had long been co-opted by white culture with many former slave songs being compiled in “American” songbooks. In the 1920s black composers and arrangers were able to publish their settings for these groups. Composers Gussie Davis, M.L. Lake, Robert Cole, and others were very popular stock band composers and arrangers during the ’20s. Here is a setting of the familiar tune “Nobody knows de trouble I seen” from M.L. Lake.

Setting for small orchestra. http://lcweb2.loc.gov/diglib/ihas/loc.natlib.ihas.100010139/pageturner.html?page=2&section=p0001&size=640

Setting for small orchestra.
http://lcweb2.loc.gov/diglib/ihas/loc.natlib.ihas.100010139/pageturner.html?page=2&section=p0001&size=640

 

We can find the melody in the treble voice and this is a form of the melody that modern listeners would most likely be familiar with. However because of its setting it and acculturation it is rife with western harmonization and figuration. This adaptation of black folk songs is something that we are very comfortable with and reminds me of William Grant-Still’s Afro-American Symphony.

H.T. Burleigh (1866-1949) was an essential figure in bringing black folk music to the classical music scene in post-reconstruction America. He introduced popular singers to the literature and was well connected with influential musical big-wigs, including Antonin Dvorak.

H.T. Burleigh's setting of "Nobody knows" for voice and piano. http://library.duke.edu/digitalcollections/hasm_n0737/

H.T. Burleigh’s setting of “Nobody knows” for voice and piano.
http://library.duke.edu/digitalcollections/hasm_n0737/

The earliest notated record of this particular tune we have is from Slave Songs of the United States, published in 1867, the seminal work of collecting slave songs in the Antebellum South. This representation from the collection is not definite however, it is still subject to editing and doesn’t account for massive variation across the southern states. SlaveSongsThis post outlines how different settings of the same tune have been treated when brought into a western context and setting. First the tune is in its most original form (that we have available), then adapted to solo voice and piano for mass consumption and use in the home and then finally used as popular music that can be recognized by the populous who attend concerts.