Monday, February 03, 2014

James Agee on "Swing Low Sweet Chariot"

Excerpt from James Agee, A Death in the Family (1955)

Italicized fragment inserted at the end of Part 1 of the novel, between chapters 7 and 8

… His father loved to sing this song too and sometimes in the dark, on the porch, or lying out all together on a quilt in the back yard, they would sing it together. They would not be talking, just listening to the little sounds, and looking up at the stars, and feeling ever so quiet and happy and sad at the same time, and all of a sudden in a very quiet voice his father sang out, almost as if he were singing to himself, “Swing low,” and by the time he got to “cherryut” his mother was singing too, just as softly, and then their voices went up higher, singing “comin for to carry me home,” and looking up between their heads from where he lay he looked right into the stars, so near and friendly, with a great drift of dust like flour across the tip of the sky. His father sang it differently from his mother. When she sang the second “Swing” she just sang “swing low,” on two notes, in a simple, clear voice, but he sang “swing” on two notes, sliding from the note above to the one she sang, and blurring his voice and making it more forceful on the first note, and springing it, dark and blurry, off the “l” in “low,” with a rhythm that made his son’s body stir. And when he came to “Tell all my friends I’m comin too,” he started four full notes above her, and slowed up a little, and sort of dreamed his way down among several extra notes she didn’t sing, and some of these notes were a kind of blur, like hitting a black note and the next white one at the same time on Grandma’s piano, and he didn’t sing “I’m comin’ ” but “I’m uh-comin,” and there too, and all through his singing, there was that excitement of rhythm that often made him close his eyes and move his head in contentment. But his mother sang the same thing clear and true in a sweet, calm voice, fewer and simpler notes. Sometimes she would try to sing it his way and he would try to sing it hers, but they always went back pretty soon to their own way, though he always felt they each liked the other’s way very much. He liked both ways very much and best of all when they sang together and he was there with them, touching them on both sides, and even better, from when they sang “I look over Jordan what do I see,” for then it was so good to look up into the stars, and then they sang “A band of angels comin after me” and it seemed as if all the stars came at him like a great shining brass band so far away you weren’t quite sure you could even hear the music but so near he could almost see their faces and they all but leaned down deep enough to pick him up in their arms. Come for to care [sic.] me home.

They sang it a little slower towards the end as if they hated to come to the finish of it and then they didn’t talk at all, and after a minute their hands took each other across their child, and things were even quieter, so that all the little noises of the city night raised up again in the quietness, locusts, crickets, footsteps, hoofs, faint voices, the shufflings of a switch engine, and after awhile, while they all looked into the sky, his father, in a strange and distant, sighing voice, said “Well ...” and after a little his mother answered, with a quiet and strange happy sadness, “Yes ...” and they waited a good little bit longer, not saying anything, and then his father took him up into his arms and his mother rolled up the quilt and they went in and he was put to bed.

Bascom Lamar Lunsford, liner notes to Bascom Lamar Lunsford: Ballads, Banjo Tunes, and Sacred Songs of Western North Carolina. Smithsonian/Folkways SF CD 40082. Washington: Smithsonian Institution, 1996.

6. Swing Low

"The title of this old spiritual is 'Swing Low.' I think it possibly is the foundation of the beautiful spiritual, 'Swing Low, Sweet Chariot.' I learned this from a student of mine way back in years gone by. Then I took Dr. R.W. Gordon to his home in 1925 at York, South Carolina, and Dr. Gordon recorded it on a cylinder record. A beautiful song sung by Willard Randall, then a man of the family, about middle age, at York, South Carolina." (14 -- lyrics on 15)

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