Advent, Day 18

“There will be signs in the sun, the moon, and the stars, and on the earth distress among nations confused by the roaring of the sea and the waves. People will faint from fear and foreboding of what is coming upon the world, for the powers of the heavens will be shaken. Then they will see ‘the Son of Man coming in a cloud’ with power and great glory. Now when these things begin to take place, stand up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.”

Then he told them a parable: “Look at the fig tree and all the trees; as soon as they sprout leaves you can see for yourselves and know that summer is already near. So also, when you see these things taking place, you know that the kingdom of God is near. Truly I tell you, this generation will not pass away until all things have taken place. Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away.

“Be on guard so that your hearts are not weighed down with dissipation and drunkenness and the worries of this life, and that day does not catch you unexpectedly, like a trap. For it will come upon all who live on the face of the whole earth. Be alert at all times, praying that you may have the strength to escape all these things that will take place, and to stand before the Son of Man.”

—Luke 21:25–36

LOOK: Country Gospel Music by Robert Gwathmey

Gwathmey, Robert_Country Gospel Music
Robert Gwathmey (American, 1903–1988), Country Gospel Music, 1971. Oil on canvas, 40 × 50 in. Private collection.

LISTEN: “I Believe in Being Ready” | Appalachian spiritual, 19th century | Performed by Rising Appalachia on Leylines (2019) [see also this performance at the Yuba River in Northern California]

I believe in being ready
I believe in being ready
I believe in being ready
For the time is drawing near

Brothers, sisters, please get ready
Brothers, sisters, please get ready
Brothers, sisters, please get ready
For the time is drawing near

Oh there’ll be signs and wonders
Oh there’ll be signs and wonders
Oh there’ll be signs and wonders
For the time is drawing near

We’ll turn round and just start over
We’ll turn round and just start over
We’ll turn round and just start over
For the time is drawing near

I believe in being ready
I believe in being ready
I believe in being ready
For the time is drawing near

I believe in being ready
I believe in being ready
I believe in being ready
For the time is drawing near

For the time is drawing near
For the time is drawing near

Folklorist Gerald Milnes gives some context to this religious folk song from the nineteenth-century frontier revival tradition in his book Play of a Fiddle: Traditional Music, Dance, and Folklore in West Virginia:

Whereas the Great Awakening may have brought about the first American break from established religious musical form, the Second Awakening and the rise of evangelical religious fervor, mostly in the Pennsylvania backcountry and southern mountains, left us with the spiritual folk songs, or folk hymns, that have a lingering legacy in West Virginia. This musical form developed during the period from the 1780s to the 1830s. The camp meeting was an old-world form brought by the Scots-Irish to America. The new spirituals that developed along with this form of worship on the frontier directly contributed to the religious fervor generated through the camp meeting.

“One might well remember, for example, that the camp meetings began and remained in nature surroundings, in the wilderness,” wrote [George Pullen] Jackson. Camp meetings in America (also called bush meetings, field meetings, and, today, brush-arbor revival or tent meetings) spawned a new emotion which materialized in song as the spiritual. At this point the chorus was introduced to the songs and became an identifying mark.

Choruses were repetitive, and verses were simplified for easy memorization by illiterate participants and where songbooks were nonexistent. Often only the introduction of a new person, as in mother, father, sister, and brother, differentiated one verse from another. Additional verses suggest more people such as sinner, preacher, playmates, etc. But it is the music—the old folk tunes clinging to all the sensitive and moving traits that attract many to folk music—that has caught the attention and held the fancy of West Virginians for as long as two centuries. These folk hymns are the predecessors to the “gospel hymns” that began about 1870 in the Protestant churches and continue to be sung today.

The song is more commonly called “When This World Comes to an End” and has been recorded under that title in this millennium by, for example, Tim O’Brien, Ashley Cleveland, and David Powell. We know of it thanks to Maggie Hammons Parker (1899–1987) from Pocahontas County, West Virginia, whose family participated in camp meetings in the early twentieth century. Parker sang the song as she remembers it for Alan Jabbour on a 1970 field recording, with the following lyrics. For more information, see the 1973 American Folklife Center publication The Hammons Family: A Study of a West Virginia Family’s Traditions.

I believe in being ready,
I believe in a-being ready,
I believe in being ready,
When this world comes to an end.

Oh, sinners, do get ready,
Oh, sinners, do get ready,
Oh, sinners, do get ready,
For the times is a-drewing near.

Oh, there’ll be signs and wonders,
Yes, there’ll be signs and wonders,
Oh, there’ll be signs and wonders,
When this world is to an end.

Oh, the sun, she will be darkened,
Yes, the sun, she will be darkened,
Oh, the sun she will be darkened,
When this world is to an end.

Oh, the moon, she will be a-bleeding,
Yes, the moon, she will be bleeding,
Oh, the moon, she will be bleeding,
When this world is to an end.

I believe in a-being ready,
I believe in being ready,
I believe in being ready,
When this world is to an end.

Oh, the stars, they’ll all be a-falling,
Yes, the stars will all be falling,
Oh, the stars will all be falling,
When this world is to an end.

Oh, sisters, do get ready,
Oh, sisters, do get ready,
Oh, sisters, do get ready,
For the times is a-drewing near.

Oh, fathers, do get ready,
Yes, fathers, do get ready,
Oh, fathers, do get ready,
When this world is to an end.

Oh, mothers, do get ready,
Yes, mothers, do get ready,
Oh, mothers, do get ready,
For the times is a-drewing near.

For there’ll be them signs and wonders,
Yes, there’ll be them signs and wonders,
There will be them signs and wonders,
When this world comes to an end.

For their 2019 recording of the song, the band Rising Appalachia adapted the lyrics and retitled the song after its first line. “Drawn to its haunting, modal melody and stark lyrics,” they write, “we put the heavy drum pulse of the bodhran behind it to rattle the ribcage. It is both apocalyptic and soothing to call forth and sing these words.”

Rising Appalachia was founded in 2004 by sisters Leah and Chloe Smith, who grew up in Atlanta, absorbing the city’s emerging hip-hop scene as well as traveling with their family to fiddle camps across the Southeast on weekends. Their music is a blend of folk, world, and urban. “Rising Appalachia has come out of this idea that we can take these traditions of southern music—that we’ve been born and raised with—and we can rise out of them, creating all these different bridges between cultures and stories to make them feel alive,” Leah says. “Our music has its foundation in heritage and tradition, but we’re creating a music that also feels reflective of the times right now. That’s always been our work.”

The Smiths are joined on the album Leylines by longtime band members David Brown (upright bass, baritone guitar) and Biko Casini (world percussion, n’goni) and by two new members: West African musician Arouna Diarra (n’goni, talking drum) and Irish musician Duncan Wickel (fiddle, cello). Special guests on the album include singer-songwriters Ani DiFranco and Trevor Hall and jazz trumpeter Maurice Turner.

“I Believe in Being Ready” is one of many songs on the Art & Theology Advent playlist on Spotify. Also check out my Christmastide playlist.

3 thoughts on “Advent, Day 18

  1. Do you know how to access the Maggie H. Parker recording in the Library of Congress? I’d really like to hear that.

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