Weeping Pilgrim 417

weeping pilgrim

When I was a child, I talked like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I put childish ways behind me.”

Allison’s Sacred Harp Singers

1 Corinthians 13:11

With quibbles to be sure, this post millennium Christianity leaves me cold. The religion, at least its most public face, built by television evangelists and politicians, has taken on a thrown to the lions complex with a vengeance. The leaders throw temper tantrums in the guise of standing up for themselves which smacks of nothing more than a child crying the victim. There’s something pathetic about people living in this country, urban, suburban or rural, with a couple of cars and jobs and food on the table yelling persecution. It reminds me of a boy walking around in his Father’s shoes playing grown-up. We live in a world of extended adolescence, it even infiltrates our religions. Are you a Christian? If so I bet you’re already feeling the indignation rise inside of you and are looking around, hoping to find a sympathetic ear. You’re being picked on. Again. I know. It’s a hard knock life.

The problem is one of fear. Christians are afraid of the secular world. They used to be afraid of God.

In Olde Puritan America this wasn’t a problem.

“The bow of God’s wrath is bent, and the arrow made ready on the string, and Justice bends the arrow at your heart, and strains the bow, and it is nothing but the mere pleasure of God, and that of an angry God, without any promise or obligation at all, that keeps the arrow one moment from being made drunk with your blood.”

Jonathan Edwards, Sinners In the Hands of An Angry God

Jonathan Edwards 2

Jonathan Edwards

This is scary stuff. Blood and guts. It’s all gone though, been washed away and sanitized and filler and fluff left in its place. Music is usually a good representation of a people and where their hearts are. Modern day, teenage swaying, hand holding, fat chord anthems sum up this post-millennium Christianity nicely. It wasn’t always like this though. There was (and in some places still is) singing to befit an angry God. Real fear in the Lord kind of stuff. Replace swaying with trembling and we’re beginning to see the light.

In the mid 18th century Puritans moving southward out of New England sang in an unaccompanied, unadorned choral singing style, made to be a simple and powerful expression of faith. This was participatory music and you did not listen. You sang.  The congregation would sit in a circle or square facing each other and divide into Altos, Trebles, Tenors, and Bases. They called it Sacred Harp singing. Shape Note Singing. Fa, Sol, La, Mi.


J. P. Rees in 1859 composed Weeping Pilgrim 417 (417 refers to the page in the Sacred Harp hymnal put together by B.F. White and E. J. King).

I weep, and I mourn,
And I move slowly on,
I’m a poor mourning pilgrim,
I’m bound for Canaan’s land.

There are two recorded versions that have struck me immediately. It’s a simple song, but like its cousin Wayfaring Stranger the trick is in the reading. We can all sing the melody.

J.T. Allison's Sacred Harp Singers

J.T. Allison’s Sacred Harp Singers

J.T. Vaughn, who stands at the far right of the old grainy photograph, gathered four Alabama men together and traveled the 500 miles between Birmingham and Richmond, Indiana by Train to record traditional Sacred Harp songs in the old style. Most of those 1927-28 recordings can be found on the County Records album “Heaven’s My Home” with fine liner notes by John Bealle and Joyce Cauthen. They sing in the old way where the first verse is just the notes without words. It’s a way to learn the melody without having to read or remember the words, but also, for me, raises the question of are the words ultimately secondary as they are in speaking in tongues? There’s a fine line between these straitlaced Baptist and their snake handling cousins. Both Sacred Harp singing and speaking in tongues can be an impenetrable and deeply personal experience. Neither are to be voyeuristic, but are a shared intoxication, contagious as a religious influenza. The Sacred Harp Singer’s sing from their chests and I wonder what expressions were on their faces while they sung their songs. There’s is not a perfect harmony, but neither is it a cacophony. Its rough hewn with a pulsing rhythm that gives it an immediacy that most other versions, to my ears, lack. Gospel music was not written to wile away a day or as an escape to everyday life. On the contrary, it was a reminder of that very thing filled with community, suffering, love, fear, guilt and awe. Jesus, to these men, was not a friend. He was a teacher and a reminder of man’s fall and deserved suffering. There is tremendous, crippling guilt associated with doing something wrong and then knowingly allowing someone else to be punished for it. That’s the true relationship with Jesus. That’s why he is the gatekeeper. No one gets in, but by him. Its often called a selfless act, but repeatedly through out scripture God is labeled selfish, jealous and absolute. Why is this act any different? This is the act of one who demands control. We call is something else to assuage our seeded guilt. Call it what it is.

Now, the Louvin Brothers sing in one of their songs “will you shout or will you cry?” and clearly these men have chosen to shout. In the wordless intro, a listener would be forgiven at first to think the sung notes are in fact lyrics. Its like hearing a muffled private conversation or an English speaker hearing Gaelic. It takes the brain a few moments to understand that in fact it does not understand. This places the singer in the realm of faith where religions are made and broken. Without these moments than can be no commune with the Holy.

When I was a boy I attended an old Lutheran church. It was a large whitewashed pillar of the community and a serious place to sit quietly in while the pastor gave his sermon and we, and him, waited to be released to watch football. The Holy Spirit, so I am told – I was a witness, but chose not to speculate on such matters – took hold of some of the parishioners in the mid 1980’s causing them to raise up their hands during sermons and occasionally murmur out loud in a most baptist of ways. This was not warmly received behavior.  The Colts had recently fled Baltimore in the night and most minds were on these Earthly matters rather than the spiritual ones. The inevitable break came after the upstarts gave up hope of an old-time revival and like the Colts left for greener pastures. A number of pastures were grazed before one was chosen and when I was about 10 or 11 I was taken to an evening service of a more demonstrative strand than I had known before. It wasn’t even a Church as I knew it. Certainly, I had heard the scripture:

“For where two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I in the midst of them.”

Matthew 18:20

I did not fully realize that meant a vacant store front in a dingy strip mall on a Wednesday night. It did though, and I’m sure all over this corn eating country still does. This was a shoutin’ affair, a praisin’, sorry you’ve been sinnin’ kind of thing. If there had been sack cloth available it would have been rend; ash and it would have been spread. Then the place really began to jump. Wordless words poured from wet lips in primitive rhythms. 40 private writhing counsels with the Almighty. If there had been snakes they would have been handled.

Sacred Harp singing doesn’t commit to that. It is about order and community more than one on one communiques. It comes down to the difference between self and group. Sacred Harp singing, as performed by J.T. Allison’s group is a blending of voices, finding Harry Smith’s allusive God Chord. There’s a fly-by-night feeling in these strip mall churches and tongue speakers. A faddish quality to them where the moment is more important than the lifetime. There’s a lifetime in Sacred Harp singing, though. Faith like that can be quiet, sometimes it can be about football or the work that needs to get done next fall, but its not fleeting in it’s strength, but clear headed and as straightforward as a green John Deere.

Now, I said there were two versions I admired. The second is a johnny-come-lately by alt-rockers Elvis Perkins in Dearland.   I won’t speculate what these men believe in, what brings them to this old Sacred Harp song and why they sing it. When heard those questions don’t matter. The spirit is alive and well and wrestles like Jacob in the night. These Perkins boys have a multi-generation scare thing going on, but before we laugh we should ask ourselves about that old knowledge – the fear of the Lord. Who is as worthy of our love than the Father, the Mother? Who is as worthy of our trembling?

“Now let the fear of the LORD be upon you. Judge carefully, for with the LORD our God there is no injustice or partiality or bribery.”

2nd Chronicles 19:7

Elvis Perkins in Dearland



About Iaan Hughes

Iaan Hughes is a deejay on 91.3 KBCS in Seattle. He plays country & western music.
This entry was posted in Country, Folk, Music, Oldtime, Pop. Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Weeping Pilgrim 417

  1. Rita Hosking says:

    I remember Jonathan Edwards’ vision that we were sinners dangling over a fire, like spiders scrambling on the ends of silken webs, ready to be dashed and thrown into the fire by the flames of an angry god. Yeesh. I much preferred going woodcutting with my dad on Sunday mornings. But, church music was the some of the only live music we heard, take it or leave it, I took it. Thank you for playing a cut off my new record, Come Sunrise!
    Best Regards,
    Rita Hosking

  2. Pingback: No One Here But Us Lone Pilgrims « The Real Mr. Heartache

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