“Little Black Train” and facing death through song

Vanitas Still Life with Self-Portrait, Pieter Claesz, 1628

Vanitas Still Life with Self-Portrait, Pieter Claesz, 1628

“Prepare to take a ride …”

I‘m just shy of fifty years old. My father died at ninety-one a month ago, and my older brother, tragically, three months before that. My mother passed less than two years ago, just a year or so after my parents moved in with us. It’s been a rather intense time around the house for a while now.  As you might expect, mortality is often on my mind these days. It churns in my subconscious as well, if my dreams are any indication.

My friends worry, understandably. They fear the dark wings of depression might fold over me and shut out the light of beauty and grace. Thankfully, such has not been the case.  One friend who has yet to know me well asked how I stay grounded. Part of it, I said, is just who I am and how I’m made – though it would be a lie to say I haven’t been quite down of late. The difference between down and out for me, however, is music. I don’t mean music as a distraction from suffering, but rather as a way to understand viscerally the truth of living and dying in this world.

I’ve been listening to and playing a variety of songs lately, seeking such depth of understanding as I might muster with Euterpe’s help. So it came to pass that, a few days ago, I bumped back into a track I hadn’t heard in more than a year. It struck me hard the first time I heard it.  This time it laid me flat, with my wet eyes wide open in the grave. My emotions spilled forth in much needed release. It was exactly what I needed to hear. It was far beyond intellect. Please, let me share it with you now.

Lyrics for “Little Black Train”

Less than a week after my father learned of my brother’s death, he had a stroke that knocked him immediately into that veiled threshold between worlds. I watched him during that time experience my brother’s funeral, even though he obviously missed it. He shook hands and talked to family members, and he cried with them. He was neither sleeping nor awake. It was astounding. Soon he returned to this world, though he had a vivid memory of that funeral.

Even in his ninth decade, he was the workman I’d known my whole life.  Over three months he exercised in rehabilitation every day and climbed his way back to full strength and lucidity. Within a week of being able to return home, he had a second stroke.  This time, he remained conscious and aware for a couple of days. As I sat with him in the hospital, he looked at me and calmly observed, “You know, you’d think ninety-one years would be a long time – but really, it wasn’t.”  He passed a few days later, still doing leg exercises up to his last night, even while he was unconscious.

“Little Black Train” hits me in exactly the same way as did my father’s words. I can’t hear the song the same way someone a century ago might have, nor do I access it the way a post-modern person of faith might. For me, it’s not the biblical references or religious messages that give it power. Those are the solid bones that hold it together, of course. I love the way the opening lines about Hezekiah hook me in, for example. The song’s muscle for me is rather in the playing and singing. I am surely not alone. This music can put us safely face-to-face with death. Anna Roberts-Gevalt and Elizabeth LaPrelle conjure that terrifying threshold, and make sure we are wide awake as we consider our inevitable crossing.

I hesitate to say much more, except this. I’ll be lucky to make it to ninety-one. I know now more surely than ever that my time between birth and death is short, however long I might last on this Earth. While I’m here, I think I will always hunger for music that shows me such truth.

“Life is uncertain, but death is sure …”

With a traditional song like this, normally I’d spend some time early in my post exploring historical roots and branches. Obviously that wasn’t the right approach this time. I don’t want to go too far into it now either, but a bit is in order.

Anna and Elizabeth to my ear seem to be drawing mainly from Dock Boggs’s version of this spiritual. Judge for yourself.

The Carter Family cut a well-known version in the 1930s, and Woody Guthrie, among others, copied that one. His version was actually my introduction, many years ago. If you want to hear a variety of other recordings, old and new, check out my Spotify playlist.

Let’s be clear though – this is black music, from the same branch as “Galveston Flood.” The roots for this one may go a bit further back, likely to the post-bellum African-American church. For sure, it starts to show up in documents in the early 20th century. Frank Brown collected and published a version in 1922, and Dorothy Scarborough did the same in 1925. The Reverend J.M. Gates made multiple recordings of the song in 1926. That’s the sound I want to leave you with today, friends. Thank you kindly for reading and listening.


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