STLT#99, Nobody Knows the Trouble I’ve Seen

Oh my goodness. I forgot this was in our hymnal.

So… it’s a familiar song, one that has been recorded by such notable singers as Paul Robeson, Louis Armstrong, Sam Cooke, and Mahalia Jackson. It’s appeared in countless movies. For some reason, it appeals to many across racial lines, perhaps because everyone at some time or another can relate, at least to the chorus.

It is a song of pain, of lament. A song borne of the struggles in the fields, on the plantations. And it is a song of aspiration and promise. You see, this is one of those songs that, if we had the real – not the UU-ified – third verse, we’d understand that this was a song not of first world problems but of the terrors of slavery and the belief that one could escape. Here’s what we have:

Nobody knows the trouble I’ve seen,
nobody knows my sorrow.
Nobody knows the trouble I’ve seen,
glory, hallelujah!

Sometimes I’m up, sometimes I’m down, oh, yes, Lord!
Sometimes I’m almost to the ground, oh, yes, Lord! (Chorus)

Although you see me going ‘long so, oh, yes, Lord!
I have my troubles here below, oh, yes, Lord! (Chorus)

One day when I was walking ‘long, oh, yes, Lord!
The heavens broke and love came down, oh, yes, Lord! (Chorus)

But the actual third verse is this:

 If you get there before I do, Oh, yes, Lord
Tell all-a my friends I’m coming too, Oh, yes, Lord

This isn’t about heaven – although I suspect many of the field masters assumed so, particularly with that tantalizing “glory halleluiah” at the end of the chorus. This is about going north to freedom.  Now it may not carry as much actual code as some other spirituals – some, like “Follow the Drinking Gourd” and “Wade in the Water” make surprisingly direct references to where to go and what to look for if you escape and want to catch the Underground Railroad. But this is one of the “yes, I’m in” songs.

Which changes things. This isn’t about modern problems and hoping to hear the voice of the Divine. This is about lament and freedom. And in that context, it is heartwrenching and hopeful. But not because it speaks to my problems, but because it speaks to the problems of the enslaved in the 19th century…and to those in the 21st still seeking freedom.

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