About 30 years or so ago, I recorded an elderly woman named Sister Bessie Hackley White singing this song, “I’m Going on a Long Journey,” in a small church in Orange County, Virginia, using a borrowed Nagra reel-to-reel tape recorder from the Library of Congress. It was a peak experience for my wife, Sally, and me, and I have carried that memory (and a cassette copy) around like a priceless heirloom all these years. I wrote my master’s thesis on Black gospel performance largely from the recordings I made at that gospel program. (Graduate Curriculum in Folklore at UNC-CH, back in the ’80s).
Now, after all these years, I’ve come to find on YouBloodyTube the original recording from which Sister White had given us that afternoon an exact, note-for-note rendition.
The song itself was better heard solo, I think, than in the original recording by Brother Joe May, because without the instruments playing back-up in a major key, the melody reveals itself as a hard blues in a pentatonic minor key, heavy on the blue notes. Sister White’s voice was very unlike Joe May’s, but she had obviously spent ALOT of time in her youth listening to that album (or the original 45 rpm record). I imagine — no, I KNOW the concentration it takes to render a melody so precisely, and am still moved by Sister White’s keening, world-weary wail. The other women in the church assured me that this was “her song.”
The recordings, thank God, are archived away in the Southern Folklife Collection in Chapel Hill, a department of the much larger Southern Historical Collection of the Wilson Memorial Library at the University of North Carolina. (I’ll look it up and fix it later.) The tapes–at one time, at least–were of very high quality. Good German mikes: Sennheisers, also on loan from the LOC.
Reinforced by the indentured servitude of a small, docile huddle of impoverished and disheveled graduate student Research Assistants–like myself in the early ’80s–the professional staff actually takes great care in the proper preservation of sound recordings. Someday all my fieldwork and correspondence will end up there, I hope.
A gen-u-ine folksong.
Most versions of “I’m Going on a Long Journey” that I can find (on YouTube, how lazy is that?) list it as being in the “public domain.” Several variants (folklore school term) are posted: all different, but the same song. till being sung, especially by the elder ladies, as is reflected on YouTube: lots of spirit-filled singing being video-ed in churches. All versions of this song that I’ve found so far were recorded AFTER May’s, but I’m willing to bet money there are darned close variants of an older tune with most of these words (or enough to count). I imagine that this was a big seller for Mays, and became most identified with him. (I can look it up later if someone doesn’t correct me first.)
The melody and song structure are straight out of the 19th Century camp meeting spiritual tradition. A common, slow, 16-bar gospel progression, with a lyric pattern, AAAB. See if you can imagine what that the same melody would sound like with the accompanists playing in a minor key. Here are the two versions, back to back.