The Story Behind the African-American Spiritual That Evokes The Cry Of The "Motherless Child"

Jan 15, 2019

With genius and grace, African-American slaves transformed bitter human experience into a beautiful art form called the "spiritual."

One of the most haunting African-American spirituals, “Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child,” was likely borne out of heart-wrenching tragedy: the forcible separation of parent from child.

As Harriet Jacobs, an escaped slave, wrote: “On one of those sale days, I saw a mother lead seven children to the auction block. She knew that some of them would be taken from her; but they took all.

The children were sold to a slave-trader, and their mother was bought by a man in her own town. Before night her children were all far away. She begged the trader to tell her where he intended to take them; this he refused to do.”

—from The Classic Slave Narratives, edited by Henry Louis Gates, Jr.

"Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child," first came to wide public prominence when it was performed by the Fisk Jubilee Singers in the 1870s. Audiences heard it and could not forget it. It has since been performed and recorded by countless singers and instrumentalists, from many different genres.

The thousands of known spirituals, composed by unknown poets and musicians, and passed down by oral tradition, evoke a full range of emotion and circumstance: protest at bondage (“Go Down, Moses,”) escape to freedom (“Wade in the Water,”) hope for salvation and a life in heaven (Swing Low, Sweet Chariot,”) the wisdom of finding inner peace (“There is a Balm in Gilead.”) 

And spirituals like "Motherless Child" express sorrow. The somber melody, the slowly processing, minor chords, convey a noble bleakness and mourning.

Why is “Motherless Child” so powerful?  Perhaps because the music and words acknowledge utter pain. And this truthful acknowledgment can help us transcend suffering.

Listen to WRTI 90.1  on Saturday, January 19,  from 6 AM to noon: for Saturday Classical Coffeehouse with Debra Lew Harder. The show will include some beautiful African-American spirituals in honor of the memory of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

 

“Sometimes I feel like a motherless child,

Sometimes I feel like a motherless child,

Sometimes I feel like a motherless child,

A long way from home.

True believer!

A long way from home,

A long way from home.”