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"Deep River" is one of the best known of African American spirituals ("spirituals" from here on in this article). It is perhaps the best-known and best-loved spiritual of all among the general public--the international public that reads books, buys recordings other than current popular recordings, and goes to concerts. Its title is used as the title of record albums;(1) of books ranging from works of religious meditation to steamy novels;(2) of radio shows;(3) even an opera.(4)
Because "Deep River" is now so well known, we tend to assume that it was always well known--as "Silent Night" is "the oldest Christmas carol" to children who have not yet developed a historical perspective.(5) Yet it was not among the spirituals that first entered the general public consciousness. Its first documentable appearance comes almost a decade after that of the earliest collections--the 1867 Slave Songs of the United States(6) and Thomas Wentworth Higginson's words-only article, "Negro Spirituals."(7) (The statement that "Deep River" originated cat 1820 in Guilford County, North Carolina, which one runs into in various contexts, originates with Miles Mark Fisher and is based on Fisher's technique of dating the spirituals through textual parallels to historical events. It has no basis in fact.)(8) And "Deep River" did not, in fact, become well known until the second decade of the twentieth century, by which time it had been transformed from its original form (see ex. 1 below) to the form given in the lowest line of example 9.
This article will trace this transformation. It will also try to document the subsequent canonization of "Deep River" as one of the greatest of the spirituals and the increasing acceptance of example 9 as its authentic version. From here on we shall call the example 9 version the "Standard Version," hoping that readers will not take this to mean that other versions are substandard.(9)
We shall end in 1930, when "Deep River" appears in two important American poems. One of these is Hart Crane's "The River," a section from The Bridge:
--A little while gaze absently below
And hum Deep River with them while they go.
The "they" with whom we are invited by Crane to hum "Deep River" are not, particularly, black; they are the legendary Mississippi river-men. So in this year, in a monument of High Modern culture, "Deep River" is considered as a song belonging to all America. The other poem is James Weldon Johnson's "St. Peter Relates an Incident of the Resurrection Day." Some post-1930 appearances of "Deep River" will be mentioned briefly as a postscript.
"Deep River" first appears in print in J.B.T. Marsh's The Story of the [Fisk] Jubilee Singers: With Their Songs. It is not in the earlier Fisk books--Jubilee Singers of 1872 or Gustavus D. Pike's The Jubilee Singers and Their campaign for Twenty Thousand Dollars of 1873-75.(10) Marsh's book (which will be called "Fisk" from now on in this essay) was published in many editions, dating from 1875 to 1903. The earliest edition containing "Deep River" which I have been able to examine, the English "seventh edition" of 1877, prints "Deep River" as song no. 77 on pages 196-97. This is the place it will occupy (unchanged, even to the misprint in m. 1) in most later editions of the book. All later versions of "Deep River," save perhaps for the version in the Lomaxes' American Ballads and Folk Songs,(11) stem finally from this version.
"Deep River" is published in Fisk not in the four-part harmonization that we associate with these books, but rather as an unaccompanied melody--a method that Theo. F. Seward, the transcriber/arranger of the songs, used for those songs that did not submit readily to Sunday School-book harmonization. (Several other spirituals published in melody-only form in Fisk have since become well known: e.g., "Nobody Knows," "Didn't My Lord Deliver Daniel," "You May Bury Me in the East," "Ride on, King Jesus."(12) That "Deep River" is published as melody-only is not unusual for Fisk; what is more unusual is the presence of dynamics. "Deep River" is one of five spirituals in the 1881 edition of Fisk to have dynamics;(13) only one other song in Fisk has a full-scale pianissimo.
Example 1 shows "Deep River" as it appears in the Fisk collections--what we shall call "the Fisk version," or, more simply, "Fisk." It differs in several ways from the Standard Version. Four of these differences, which will be useful in our discussion, are (in descending order of importance):
[Example 1 ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]
1. The form of the Standard Version is a closed form--roughly
AABA'. Fisk is an open form--chorus/verse/chorus/verse/
chorus . . ., with the verse sung to what is in effect a reciting tone;
2. "1: want to cross over into camp ground," which is the final
phrase of the A sections in the Standard Version, is a repeated
refrain in the Fisk version-"repeated" in itself and "repeated"
since it occurs at the end of both chorus and verse (the first
statement of the words serves a double function--as the final
line of the chorus proper and as the first line of refrain);
3. While the Standard Version is clearly in the major mode, Fisk lies
ambiguously between major and relative minor--E major and C-sharp
minor as printed (remember this key complex--which we'll abbreviate
to "E major"; later versions in this rather unriverish key tend to be
taken directly from Fisk);
4. (Most trivial; most useful): The fourth measure of Fisk descends to
the tonic (assuming the tune to be in E major), while the Standard
Version stops at the second degree. This small detail is a quick and
useful way of telling whether a newly found version of "Deep River"
is dependent on the Standard Version.
The second of these differences, "I want to cross over into camp ground" as a refrain, is perhaps the most striking difference from the Standard Version. The large-scale design--refrain that occurs after both chorus and verse--is not unusual in early spirituals(14) (the AABA' form of the Standard Version is, on the contrary, completely foreign to the folk spiritual). But the form of the refrain itself in Fisk, the obsessive repetition of a single short text to varying music within a narrow range, is extremely unusual: the nearest parallel in the pre-1910 spiritual repertory is probably "Dum-a-lum" in Calhoun Plantation Songs.(15) To my unexpert ears this refrain (and that of "Dum-a-lum" as well) suggests an African origin.
Anyone singing the Fisk "Deep River" will find it impossible to sing the da capo of the opening in the dreamy, "timeless" manner in which "Deep River" is usually sung: the refrain has set up a strong, slow, march-like pulse that carries over into the da capo. If we sing the beginning as we sing the da capo, we find ourselves with a "Deep River" different in spirit as well as notes from the Standard Version. Had Higginson collected this "Deep River," he would have classified it among the spirituals of the Church Militant.
There is no known reference to "Deep River" before its publication in Fisk;(16) nor is it mentioned by any informant in the Slave Narrative Collection of the Federal Writers' Project.(17) Those who have worked in this field will know just how little significance to give to this fact: most pre-1870 descriptions of black music do not identify particular pieces, and those that do tend to mention only one or two titles. More to our purpose is the fact that "Deep River" was not much noticed for the quarter century following its publication in Fisk.(18) It is on the basis of this negative evidence that I base my statement that it was little known until after the turn of the century. I know of no specific mention of "Deep River" before 1905, and as late as 1914 it is absent from Henry E. Krehbiel's ambitious survey in Afro-American Folksongs.(19)
Its absence is particularly notable from two literary works of the early twentieth century, one by W. E. B. Du Bois and the other by James Weldon Johnson. The larger of these works is W. E. B. Du Bois's The Souls of Black Folk, published in 1903. Its final chapter, "Of the Sorrow Songs," makes an impassioned case for the spirituals as "the sole American music. . . [and] the most beautiful expression of human experience born this side the seas." In the course of the chapter, Du Bois identifies the "ten master songs--the ten greatest of the spirituals." "Deep River" is not among them: in fact, "Deep River" is mentioned nowhere in The Souls of Black Folk. And The Souls of Black Folk is shot through with the spirituals: part of the strategy of the book is to present the spirituals as one of humanity's great creations, and thus to establish the black race's credentials as a significant contributor to Western culture.
The James Weldon Johnson work in which we might expect to find "Deep River" is "O Black and Unknown Bards," a poem first published in Century Magazine in November 1908. The poem invokes five of the best-known spirituals: "Steal Away to Jesus," "Roll, Jordan, Roll," "Swing Low, Sweet Chariot," "Nobody Knows the Trouble I've Seen," and "Go Down, Moses." The absence of "Deep River" from this list of songs is less indicative than its absence from The Souls of Black Folk: it is the purpose of a poem to select, not to catalog. But it is suggestive. (Johnson would do full justice to "Deep River" later.)(20)
The first person to give serious notice to "Deep River" was Samuel Coleridge-Taylor (1875-1912) in his 1905 collection, Twenty-Four Negro Melodies Transcribed for the Piano.(21) This volume, Coleridge-Taylor's most extensive work for pianoforte, was commissioned by Oliver Ditson for its prestigious series, the Musicians Library. Coleridge-Taylor, an Afro-British composer, rather than an African or an African American, relied on published collections rather than on his own memories for all of his twenty-four songs, which included African as well as African American melodies. Coleridge-Taylor did not invariably use entire folk melodies in his settings, which turn out to be fantasies on the tunes rather than straightforward harmonizations: the portion of each tune used is printed above Coleridge-Taylor's piano version.
"Deep River," the tenth of the Twenty-Four Negro Melodies, is prefaced by the first four measures of the Fisk version (with a mistake in the second measure which Coleridge-Taylor does not make in his arrangement). At the bottom of the first page of music is the notation, "In the author's opinion this is the most beautiful and touching melody of the whole series." "Deep River" has been noticed at last: and it has begun its transformation into the song as we know it.(22)
The most radical aspect of Coleridge-Taylor's transformation of "Deep River" is his lopping off all of the song after the first four measures. At one swipe are gone the chorus-verse-chorus form of the song, the verse itself with its chanting-tone melody, and the refrain with its quasi-African flavor.(23) The text of the first verse ("Oh, don't you want to go . . . ") will return in the Standard Version as the B section of an AABA' form; all the other aspects that Coleridge-Taylor has shorn from the Fisk version will return only in versions--none of them finally successful--which attempt to return to Fisk. The major history of "Deep River" from now on will be the history of its first four measures and of Coleridge-Taylor's extension of them.
The first five measures of Coleridge-Taylor's "Deep River" (ex. 2) present--still in the E major of the Fisk version--a "Deep River" already recognizable as the song we know: deep rolling chords over which unfolds the noble, timeless melody. But if the start is the "Deep River" we are used to, the sixth measure comes as a surprise: Coleridge-Taylor, remembering the tonal ambiguity of the original tune, recasts the cadence in C-sharp minor. The effect is of a bit of Brahms wandering into the tune:
[Example 2 ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]
The second phrase of Coleridge-Taylor's arrangement begins the creation of the new material which will become the B section of the Standard Version. Example 3 shows mm. 7-9 of the Coleridge-Taylor version, along with the B section of the Standard Version transposed to E major:
[Example 3 ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]
Accustomed as we have become to the Standard Version of "Deep River," we tend to hear mm. 7-9 of the Coleridge-Taylor version and their extension in his mm. 10-12 as merely a variant of a preexistent version of the tune.(24) It is, I suppose, possible to imagine that Coleridge-Taylor heard such a version during his visit to the United States in 1904 and remembered it when making his arrangement.(25) But this Bartokian interest in folk-music collecting is nowhere else evident in Twenty-Four Negro Melodies, which rely entirely on printed sources eked out by composerly fantasy: it is far more rational to see mm. 712 as music original to Coleridge-Taylor.
Coleridge-Taylor's "Deep River" proceeds to a more assertive B section, piu mosso, in E minor/C major, which is primarily a fantasy on the cadential figure (m. 4 of ex. 1) and the octave leap in the second measure: the work in its entirety is not the dreamy fantasy of its opening measures.(26) If "Deep River" has shed the militant cast of its refrain, it has not yet achieved the utter tranquillity of the Standard Version.
Coleridge-Taylor's "Deep River" did not go unnoticed. In 1911 Oliver Ditson published an arrangement of this version transcribed for violin and piano by the major American violin virtuosa Maud Powell (1868-1920). Powell recorded this version in June of that year with pianist George Falkenstein--the first version of "Deep River" to be recorded.
The Coleridge-Taylor "Deep River" is the earliest work to appear in the records of the Copyright Office of the …