The exodus of the Israelites from Egypt, where they had been held in bondage for at least two hundred years, through the miraculously parted waters of the Red Sea is the archetypal salvation event in the Hebrew scriptures. Throughout its books, one of the primary epithets for God is “he who brought us up out of Egypt,” or some variation thereof, for this action defined God’s character, assured the Israelites of his strength and will to save.
In addition to its historical sense, Christians have long understood the Old Testament exodus story as a prefigurement of the “new exodus” led by Christ, whereby we are liberated from the bondage of sin. As the New Moses, Jesus confronts evil—institutional evil, but also the evil inside each of us—and leads us out of its clutches. He stretched out his hands on a cross to create for us a clear path to freedom, then he stretched out his hands again three days later in resurrection victory, burying our former oppressors. Liturgical tradition acknowledges the link between the Exodus and the Resurrection by prescribing the reading of Exodus 14 at Easter Vigil.
In the farm fields of the antebellum South, African American slaves resonated strongly with the story of the Israelites. They looked to the Exodus—that literal, historic flight—in hopes that God would one day accomplish the same feat for them, and they even encoded this hope into the songs they sang. “Oh Mary, Don’t You Weep” is one such example. The verses vary by performer, but the chorus is this:
Oh Mary, don’t you weep, don’t you mourn
Oh Mary, don’t you weep, don’t you mourn
Pharaoh’s army got drownded
Oh Mary, don’t you weep
One might be tempted to assume that the Mary referred to here is Moses’s sister, for narrative coherence. (“Miriam” is the Hebrew equivalent of the English “Mary.”) However, the more logical choice, given the weeping detail, is either Mary of Bethany or Mary Magdalene, both of whom the Bible records as weeping in response to death—Mary of Bethany, at the death of her brother, Lazarus (John 11:31–33), and Mary Magdalene, at the death of Jesus (John 20:11–13). In both stories, though, Christ demonstrates power over the grave. He brings Lazarus back to life, and he himself returns to life three days after his Crucifixion.
The chorus applies equally well to either Mary, and perhaps the dual reference is intentional. Their stories are similar, the one a precursor to the other. Mary of Bethany, however, seems to be the more popular interpretation, as evidenced by adaptations of the song that add Martha’s name to the chorus, such as the Swan Silvertones’ version (“Oh Mary, don’t you weep / Oh Martha, don’t you mourn”). Either way, the song creates a link between God’s victory over the Egyptians in the Old Testament and his victory over death in the New. The chorus is a consolatory reminder that God is mighty to save.
As with most spirituals, “Oh Mary, Don’t You Weep” operates on three levels:
- as Jewish history;
- as spiritual metaphor; and
- as an expression of present circumstances and/or anticipations.
[Related post: “‘Ngarra Bura Fera’ (Turn Back Pharaoh’s Army)”]
When slaves sang, they did so as a form of resistance, using language that could be interpreted at face value as commemorating stories from the biblical past, or as Christian metaphors of salvation from sin, but that really contained veiled references to their aspirations for escape or for divine vengeance to be brought down on their oppressors. For example, “Egypt” was code for the South, whereas “home” and “heaven” and “over Jordan” were code for freedom in the North. The slaves identified themselves with the children of Israel, and Pharaoh with their masters.
The earliest extant recording of “Oh Mary, Don’t You Weep” is from 1915 by the Fisk Jubilee Singers, a peppy a cappella rendition:
The verses they use are as follows:
- “I don’t know what my mother want to stay here for / This old world ain’t no friend to her”
- “One of these mornings, bright and fair / Gonna take my wings and cleave the air”
- “When I get to heaven gonna put on my shoes / Gonna run around glory and tell all the news”
- “When I get to heaven gonna sing and shout / Ain’t nobody there gonna turn me out”
The first verse is chilling in its bleakness, but it’s followed by the upbeat “Because Pharaoh’s army got drownded!” This is why Mother is pressing on. She knows that deliverance is on the horizon.
Another early recording is from 1921 by the Virginia Female Jubilee Singers:
Theirs is sung at a considerably slower tempo, really drawing out the element of lament. The verses, two of which are variations on those above, are as follows:
- “One of these days I’m goin’ away / I won’t be back until Judgment Day”
- “What my mother want to stay here for? / This old world is no friend to her”
- “One of these days, both bright and fair / I’ll spread my wings and flee the air”
- “If I had died when I were young / I would notta had this race to run”
- “I had faith until I got old / God, most [?] gracious, save my soul”
The earliest video recording of “Oh Mary, Don’t You Weep” is an outtake from a Fox Movietone newsreel shot in 1929, featuring the “Georgia Field Hands.” Their verses about gambling and adultery made me laugh. Apparently they made them laugh too.
In the 1950s and ’60s, American folk icon Pete Seeger helped bring “Oh Mary, Don’t You Weep” to the attention of wider audiences. Below is a clip of him performing the song on his show Rainbow Quest with guests Bernice Johnson Reagon, one of the premier song leaders during the civil rights movement, and the recently deceased Jean Ritchie, “the mother of folk,” in 1965:
More recently, in March 2005, Bruce Springsteen recorded the song—based on Seeger’s interpretation of it—at a jam session with thirteen other folk musicians at his New Jersey farmhouse. It was released the following year on the album We Shall Overcome: The Seeger Sessions. This rollicking version with fiddles and brass is my favorite. See the music video below. (For a full list of performers, click here.)
The verses Springsteen uses, culled from tradition, are full of biblical references.
“If I could I surely would / Stand on the rock where Moses stood”: This, I think, is a reference to Exodus 33:18–23, in which Moses, post-exodus, demands to see God’s glory. “And the Lord said, ‘Behold, there is a place by me where you shall stand on the rock, and while my glory passes by I will put you in a cleft of the rock, and I will cover you with my hand until I have passed by. Then I will take away my hand, and you shall see my back, but my face shall not be seen’” (vv. 21–23). The singer here is expressing his or her wish to witness God’s glory.
“Mary wore three links of chain / On every link was Jesus’ name”: This couplet is a floating verse that can be found in other spirituals. Its meaning, though, is cryptic; no one quite knows how to interpret it, as there’s no clear biblical connection. Is the chain referring to manacles, or to a piece of jewelry?
The lines could be a jab at the hypocrisy of slaveholders, who professed commitment to the ideals of Jesus and yet contradictorily treated human beings like chattel. Or they could refer to the genuine faith of the enslaved, how they regarded Jesus as with them in their suffering. One variation is “Every link bore freedom’s name,” which suggests that in their imprisonment the slaves clung to the hope of liberation.
But does this relate to any of the Marys of scripture? Perhaps it could be seen to relate to Mary Magdalene’s deliverance from demons (Luke 8:2), who had kept her in bondage until Jesus arrived on the scene. In this case the picture is of broken bonds lying on the ground, inscribed with the name of the liberator. This is Jesus’s calling card: captives set free.
If, on the other hand, the “links of chain” are interpreted benignly as a bracelet or a necklace, perhaps a source of inspiration could be the oracle given in Ezekiel 16, describing God’s adorning of Israel, his bride. “I clothed you also with embroidered cloth and shod you with fine leather. I wrapped you in fine linen and covered you with silk. And I adorned you with ornaments and put bracelets on your wrists and a chain on your neck . . .” (vv. 10–11). Most Christians interpret this passage as a picture of what Christ does for sinners: takes us in off the streets and makes us clean and beautiful.
“One of these nights ’bout twelve o’clock / This old world is gonna rock”: On one level this is a reference to the Second Coming. In the parable of the ten virgins, for example, the bridegroom (that is, Jesus) comes at midnight: “At midnight there was a cry, ‘Here is the bridegroom! Come out to meet him’” (Matthew 25:6). On another, more material level, these lines are a prophecy of emancipation.
“Moses stood on the Red Sea shore / Smote the water with a two-by-four”: The biblical account of the Red Sea crossing does not say that Moses struck the water to part it but rather that he raised his arms (Exodus 14:21). It could be that the songwriter was confusing this detail with the episode of Moses striking a rock with his staff to make it emit water later on in the Israelites’ wilderness journey (Numbers 20:11), or even Moses striking the waters of the Nile to turn them into blood as a threat to Pharaoh before the exodus (Exodus 7:20).
“Old Mr. Satan, he got mad / Missed that soul that he thought he had”: It would be easy to succumb to despair if your bodies and those of your family were exploited in such horrific ways, and surely there was a temptation to reject God, regarding him as either cruel or impotent to let the system of slavery continue and prosper. But the slaves taunted Satan with their faithfulness.
“Brothers and sisters, don’t you cry / There’ll be good times by and by”
“God gave Noah the rainbow sign / No more water but fire next time”: This couplet references the rainbow, a sign of God’s promise after the Flood to never again drown the whole earth (Genesis 9:12–15). However, a different element will come to bring destruction in the end: fire. The words of Paul’s second letter to the church at Thessalonica, whose members were being persecuted by the Roman Empire, must have been comforting to African American slaves:
Indeed God considers it just to repay with affliction those who afflict you, and to grant relief to you who are afflicted as well as to us, when the Lord Jesus is revealed from heaven with his mighty angels in flaming fire, inflicting vengeance on those who do not know God and on those who do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus. (2 Thessalonians 1:6–8)
This final verse in Springsteen’s version of “Oh Mary, Don’t You Weep” invokes fire on perpetrators of injustice, modern-day “pharaohs.”
An expression of Christian hope and subversion originating during a tragic time in America’s past, “Oh Mary, Don’t You Weep” ties African American experience to the Bible’s two most triumphant stories of deliverance: the Exodus and the Resurrection. Slaves gained empowerment through these stories, from the witness of those saints of old who rallied around them as historical turning points. As they recalled these stories in song, they readied themselves to experience a liberation of their own, a movement from death to life.