Tuesday, 18 September 2012

God’s Agwine Ter Move All De Troubles Away

Lowry may have been exposed to African American spirituals for the first time in America through his contact with Conrad Aiken, who is known to have had some knowledge of spirituals. Lowry worked on a draft of Ultramarine while in America in 1929 and may have noted the refrain below, which he incorporated into the finished novel:

(And Samson tol’ her cut off-a ma hair
If yo’ shave ma hade
Jes as clean as yo’hair
Ma strength-a will become-a like a natch-erl man,
For Gawd’s agwine t’move all the troubles away,
For Gawd’s agwine t’move all the troubles away….) (Pg. 143)

Natalie Curtis-Burlin
The above verses are from a spiritual entitled ‘God’s Agwine Ter Move All De Troubles Away’. Natalie Curtis-Burlin first transcribed the song in 1918 in her Hampton Series.  She states that the song was recorded by a quartet in Hampton consisting of Charles H. Tynes ("Lead"), Freeman W. Crawley (Tenor), Samuel E. Phillips (Baritone) and John H. Wainright (Bass). The origins of the song are lost but it was popular in Virginia and St Helena Island off the coast of South Carolina.

CHORUS [sung twice after each verse]
[For] God’s agwine ter move all de troubles away,
God’s agwine ter move all de troubles away,
For God’s agwine ter move all de troubles away,
See ’m no more till de comin’ day.  

Genesis you understan’,
Methusaleh was de oldes’ man;
His age was nine hundred an’ sixty nine,
He died an went to Heav’n in due time.

Dare was a man of de Pharisee,
His name was Nicodemus an’ he wouldn’t believe;
De same he came to Christ by night,
wanta be taught out o’ human sight.
Nicodemus was a man who wanted to know,
Can a man be born a whena he is ol’?
Christ tol’ Nicodemus as a frien’,
a-Man, you must be born again.”

Aread about Samson from his birth,
De stronges’ man ever walked on earth;
a-Read way back in de ancient times,
He slew ten thousan’ Philistines.
A-Samson he went a-walkin’ about,
a-Samson’s strengtha  was never found out
Twell his wife set down upon his knee an’
a “Tell me whar yo’ strengthalies, ef you please.”
ASamson’s wife she done talk so fair,
a-Samson tol’ her, “Cut offa ma hair,
Ef you shave my head jes’ es clean as yo’ han’,
Ma strengtha will becomea like a natcherl man.”

Aiken spent his childhood in Savannah, where he had at least two black nurses who may have taught or sung the song to him, or indeed he may have heard it from his mother.  Aiken himself was interested in spirituals and may have had a recording of the song. Another possible connection is that Aiken may have known Curtis-Burlin or her book, as she wrote for Poetry magazine, to which he contributed. There is also an article on spirituals by Gilbert Seldes, "An End and a Beginning" Rev. of twos book of Negro spirituals, Dial 83.1 (July 1927) Pgs.70-2  alongside a piece by Aiken. Therefore, Lowry could possibly have read about spirituals in the magazines prior to his visit, been exposed to them through Aiken, or picked up on them from an unidentified source in America on his first visit.

Lowry’s dalliance with African American culture continued during his time in New York in 1934 and 1935 with trips to Harlem to listen to jazz, though details are sparse. He also included the black character Battle in his novella Lunar Caustic, which allowed him the opportunity to include further references to African American speech idioms, slang, jazz music, stories and prototype rapping.

Lovis Corinth The Blinded Samson 1912
Lowry's use of the refrain comes in Chapter 4 is perhaps chosen to reflect on the story of Samson - a man who must abstain from alcohol and not cut his hair otherwise God would abandon him and he would only have the strength of a natural man; who is betrayed by his wife and who commits suicides - themes contained in Ultramarine.

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