Mary Don’t You Weep

Out rambling the hills, I found that for some reason the old Negro spiritual “Mary Don’t You Weep” was in my head. Unfortunately, I only knew the first verse — so, to avoid the monotony of that one verse infinitely repeated, I began to make up other verses on the fly, using the first as a model. Here’s what I came up with:

If I could I surely would
Stand on the rock where Moses stood
Pharaoh’s army got drownded
O Mary, don’t you weep

O Mary, don’t you weep, don’t you mourn
O Mary, don’t you weep, don’t you mourn
Pharaoh’s army got drownded
O Mary, don’t you weep

Then, with Pharaoh’s army quelled
I’d hold the rod that Moses held
Water sprang where he smoted
O Mary, don’t you weep

O Mary, don’t you weep, don’t you mourn
O Mary, don’t you weep, don’t you mourn
Water sprang where he smoted
O Mary, don’t you weep

Then my people for to save
I’d give the Law that Moses gave
God’s own finger done wrote it
O Mary don’t you weep

O Mary don’t you weep, don’t you mourn
O Mary don’t you weep, don’t you mourn
God’s own finger done wrote it
O Mary don’t you weep

When they’d all received the Law
Maybe I’d see what Moses saw
Canaan’s honeymilk flowin’
O Mary don’t you weep

O Mary don’t you weep, don’t you mourn
O Mary don’t you weep, don’t you mourn
Canaan’s honeymilk flowin’
O Mary don’t you weep

(slower)

And when that Promised Land I’d spied
Lord I could die like Moses died
Ain’t no body been founded
So Mary don’t you weep

O Mary don’t you weep, don’t you mourn
O Mary don’t you weep, don’t you mourn
Ain’t no body been founded
So Mary don’t you weep
Pharaoh’s army got drownded
So Mary, don’t you weep

When I came home, I looked up the real lyrics to see how far I’d diverged from tradition (answer: pretty far). Most of the verses were pretty straightforward allusions to Bible stories, but this one struck me by its strangeness:

Mary wore three links of chain
And on every link was Jesus’ name
Pharaoh’s army got drownded
O Mary don’t you weep

Similar lines occur in the spiritual “All Er My Sins Are Taken Erway” — but what on earth do they mean? I had always assumed that the “Mary” of the song was just a generic American slave, but this verse makes it sound like a specific historical person is intended. The Virgin? Magdalene? Moses’ sister? The last is the only one of the three that was ever in chains, but in that case “Jesus’ name” would be an anachronism — unless the “Jesus” intended were the son of Nun. (I like that idea, though of course it’s highly unlikely that uneducated slaves would have known that Jesus and Mary are the same names as Joshua and Miriam.) And aside from the question of the identity of “Mary” and “Jesus,” why three links of chain? (That’s a pretty short chain. Are we to understand that her chains have been broken off and that she wears a few links as a reminder of her past condition?) And why would Jesus’ name be on the chains? I get the impression that whoever originally wrote this verse meant something very specific by it, but that the meaning has since been lost — probably irrecoverably.

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