Monday, October 07, 2013

"Roll Jordan, Roll" Port Royal, S.C., 1862 / notes on "blue tonality" and misc. videos of Jamaican religious ceremonies, American gospel and Italian orchestral arrangements


"Roll Jordan, Roll," not the gospel quartet version popularized most recently by the Fairfield Four but the original version sung in 1862 by freed slaves behind Union lines in South Carolina, works beautifully on a mountain dulcimer in DAD or another Mixolydian tuning. Collected by Lucy McKim (later Mrs. Wendell Garrison) on a visit to Port Royal, S.C., with her father in June 1862. In 1867 she would provide notation for Slave Songs of the United States and is listed on the title page as a co-author. Excellent bio by Margaret Hope Bacon (1987) PDF] lucy mckim garrison pioneer in folk music - Pennsylvania History‎

In 1862 at the age of 19, she published a letter discussing "Roll Jordan" and others she heard in Port Royal:

The editor of Dwight’s Journal of Music published a letter [Nov. 8, 1862] from Miss Lucy McKim, of Philadelphia, accompanying a specimen of the songs in vogue among the [N]egroes about Port Royal. Miss McKim accompanied her father thither on a recent visit, and wrote as follows :

It is difficult to express the entire character of these [N]egro ballads by mere musical notes and signs. The odd turns made in the throat, and the curious rhythmic effect produced by single voices chiming in at different irregular intervals, seem almost as impossible to place on score as the singing of birds or the tones of an Æolian harp. The airs, however, can be reached. They are too decided not to be easily understood, and their striking originality would catch the ear of any musician. Besides this, they are valuable as an expression of the character and life of the race which is playing such a conspicuous part in our history. The wild, sad strains tell, as the sufferers themselves never could, of crushed hopes, keen sorrow, and a dull, daily misery which covered them as hopelessly as the fog from the rice-swamps. On the other hand, the words breathe a trusting faith in rest in the future—in “Canaan‘s fair and happy land,” to which their eyes seem constantly turned.

* * *

Perhaps the grandest singing we heard was at the Baptist Church, on St. Helena Island, when a congregation of three hundred men and women joined in a hymn:

“Roll, Jordan, roll, Jordan!
Roll, Jordan, roll!”
It swelled forth like a triumphal anthem. That same hymn was [later] sung by thousands of [N]egroes on the Fourth of July last, when they marched in procession under the Stars and Stripes, cheering them for the first time as the “flag of our country.” A friend, writing from there, says that the chorus was indescribably grand — “that the whole woods and world seemed joining in that rolling sound.”

There is much more in this new and curious music of which it is a temptation to write, but I must remember that it can speak for itself, better than any one for it.

Source: Anecdotes, Poetry and Incidents of the War: North and South, 1860-1865, Collected and Arranged by Frank Moore. 1867. Mike Goad, "Music of the Port Royal Negroes," Anecdotes & Images, Chronicles of the Civil War.

"blue(s) tonality"

The term is Marshall Stearns' ...

The tonality of "Roll Jordan, Roll" is ambiguous, seems to go from Mixolydian to major (Ionian) modes. Published in D, it has both a C-natural in the melody and a C-sharp leading to the keynote at the end of the A part. The B part is straight-forward D major. There's also a variant in the A part where the F-sharp is lowered to an F-natural. I don't want to go overboard with this, but these are the degrees of the scale we'll find in blues a few decades later. Says Marshall W. Stearns, a jazz afficionado who taught at NYU and authored an influential history of jazz:

To be technical, two areas in the octave -- the third and the seventh in the scale (E-glat and B-flat in the scale of C) -- are attacked with an endless variety of swoops, glides, slurs, smears , and glosses. In other words, a singer, or instrumentalist, takes certain notes and cradles and caresses them lovingly.

With the addition of a few blue notes, the entire harmony becomes blue and blue tonality results. It occurs in almost all American Negro music, vocal and instrumental, [8] and especially in jazz. It can be heard in the field holler and the work song, the spiritual and gospel, minstrelsy and ragtime. Above all, you can hear it in the bittersweet mixture of the blues. But it doesn't stop there. Many Tin Pan Alley tunes are saturated with it and several classical composers have dabbled in it. Blue tonality has colored America's musical life. (7-8)

Marshall W. Stearns, The Story of Jazz. New York: Oxford, 1956.

More on blue notes ...

By Sterling Brown, early to mid-20th century African American poet, critic and folklorist ...

Around themes of hard-luck, desperation, ironic contrasts between the hope and the actuality—"the blues ain't nothing but the poor man's heart disease"—grew up the Negro’s secular songs of sorrow. Musically the blues were suited to carry the burden of grief. Comprising twelve or occasionally sixteen bars, involving certain simple harmonic changes, stressing the "blue note" in which the third and seventh are not pitched steadily but waver between flat and natural, they brought a poignance to American music. They lend themselves to improvisation and are basic to much hot jazz.
"Stray Notes on Jazz," Vassar Brew (1946).

A useful analysis on YouTube. A graduate of Portland State University in Oregon, Danny Cauldle has fronted several bands and "played at fairs, farmers markets, busking on the street, bars, clubs, talent shows and private gigs" in Oregon and California. He now works for a home care agency in Fresno, Calif., and has an online project to post 1,000 videos to YouTube.

Of "Roll Jordan, Roll," Cauldle says, "I wanted to explore the melodies of the slave songs of the United States. The Spiritual melody is centered around the pentatonic scale and generally stays with 1 key swaying from major mode to minor mode. In the 3rd bar we sing a C-natural (flat-7) with lends itself to many options. The most easy and obvious is a D7 chord functioning as V7/IV." Very good! He understands the modality of the tune, and I'm intrigued by the steps he explains for memorizing a song ... whistling it gives you a tactile sense of whether the pitch is going up or down?!? Well, why wouldn't it?

Post #386 | Slave Songs Of The United States | Roll, Jordan, Roll | Spiritual | By Danny Caudle

Instrumental performance of the original version from Slave Songs played on a fretless minstrel-style banjo by Tim Twiss of Milford Music, Highland, Mich. Twis has a lot of early banjo music.

Notes from radio interview with Jim Thomas, director of the Slave Songs Project, who sang with the Fisk Jubilee Singers ... see article in the Martha's Vinyard Times on Thomas, founder and president of the Martha's Vineyard-based U.S. Slave Song Project, w/ link to his website at

Thomas discusses the song and sings a passage from the Jubilee Singers' version beginning at 12:00. Says of the early spirituals, "They're personal stories of groups of people who were ripped away from Africa." Believes RJR one of two earliest songs because it preserves an echo of crossing the Atlantic. The other is "Deep River."

US SLAVE SONGS PROJECT.mpg. Radio Interview with Jim Thomas, Slave Songs/Spirituals Expert. Interview Black History Month, February 2011 on WFVA NewsTalk 1230, Fredericksburg/Stafford, Virginia by Bob Hagan, host of the TownHall program.

Quotes taken down while watching video ...

"There has not been a new slave song since 1865."

ca. 6:00 "This was a group of teenagers who were told not to talk to each other during the work day. And they found a way to communicate. " -- cf. texting "The slaves found this common way to communicate that resembles texting."

3 ways adapted from different parts of Africa -- call and response -- slow sustained chords -- syncopated

c-and-r cf. Greek chorus

They saw the master and mistress were moved by that language [of the church], And they could use that language to comunicate with each other and not be detected.

A variant of "Roll Jordan, Roll" by the Fisk University Jubilee Singers was popularized with different lyrics but (at least to my ear) a similar tonality, and it became the one we usually hear today. Not available on YouTube, except as noted above in Jim Thomas' radio interview. A 1920s-era recording by the Fisk Jubilee Quartet is available at

An Italian orchestral arrangement ...

Roll Jordan Roll (spiritual tradizionale - elaborazione di F.Rossi) Loggia dei Cavalieri, Treviso.

Direttore : M° Francesco Rossi Voci Soliste: Laura Bellio - Giovanni Frasson Coro Vox Nova di Silea - Coro E. Montale di San Donà di Piave Orchestra E. Montale di San Donà di Piave: Flauto traverso: M° Riccardo Agnoletto, Gaia Roberta Parcianello Clarinetto: Carlo Sutto Tromba: Luigi Terracciano Violini: Sara Boem, Beatrice Borriello, Davide Bragato, Elena Degan Violoncelli: M° Caterina Pillon, Eleonora Ziggiotti Chitarra classica: Giacomo Pavan Chitarra elettrica: Andrea Artico, Lorenzo Zemolin Batteria e percussioni: Paolo Furlan Pianoforte: Arianna de Stefani, Francesco Rossi

A couple of the many gospel arrangements ...

Roll, Jordan, Roll - Mahalia Jackson - Gospels, Spirituals & Hymns

Nashville Bluegrass Band & Fairfield 4 - Roll Jordan Roll

In Jamaica, Fisk Jubilee Singers' words but in a context more like that of West African religious ceremony, ring shout, etc. ...

GEORGE BANTON-ROLL JORDAN ROLL LIVE IN CANADA. No description. Apparently a concert for Jamaican expats. Cf. Fairfield Four.

Zion Sacred Heart Roll Jordan Roll. No description available. Anniversary celebration at a church in Jamaica? In comments:

"Azizi Powell 7 months ago Thanks for posting this video. I added it to a post on my cultural blog. Google Pancocojams [] Jamaican Songs About The River Jordan (Part I). That post includes some information about two other Jamaican "Roll Jordan Roll" & "Roll River Jordan" songs.
I couldn't find the lyrics to this song, & so I transcribed the words from this video. Additions & corrections are very welcome. Thanks again & God bless!

Jamaican man dancing to roll Jordan roll at a nine-night.

Jamaican Traditional Wake (Nine Night). One of the strongest Jamaican traditions concerning death, is that of a wake, also called Nine Night or Set Up. Nine-Nights are no longer a time to mourn but a time to celebrate since the loved one is no longer suffering in life. When friends come they do not come with just condolences they come with food, drink and music; this is after all a celebration.

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