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ADVENTURES OF A BALLAD HUNTER

By JOHN A. LOMAX

THE REVEREND SIN-KILLER GRIFFIN, employed by the State as Chaplain to the Negro convicts of the Texas Penitentiary System, looked his part. His grizzly grey hair and mutton chop whiskers, his Prince Albert coat which almost touched his shoe tops, his dignified and courtly bearing, his deep and sonorous voice were most impressive. His ministerial manner was further heightened by a very slow walk, slow speech, and a long, long pause between questions as if he were consulting higher powers.

“Reverend,” I said, “I hope you will preach your favorite sermon to the boys tonight. The Captain has agreed for me to record it, and I plan to deposit the records in the Folk Song Archive of the Library of Congress. A thousand years from now people can listen to the words you will preach.”

“I'll preach my Calvary sermon,” he assented. “Today is my Easter service.”

The two long wings of the dormitory of the Darrington Farm, near Houston, where the convicts slept, were separated by a wide hall. My son, Alan, and I set up the recording machine here, running the microphone cable through the bars of one wing where the Reverend Sin-Killer had his pulpit and altar. He stood where his powerful voice could reach the three hundred convicts lounging on their beds in their pajamas or peering curiously through the bars at the strange doings. Some of the more devout worshippers—deacons and preachers out in the free world—were seated in a circle near the Reverend. At a sign from him the penitentiary song-leader led them in a swinging spiritual:

Lord, I want to love my enemies in my heart,

Lord, I want to be more humble in my heart….

When the song was finished the leader invited the “sinner friends” to come forward to the front seats. No one moved.

“Those that mourn shall be comforted,” he said. “Let us mourn, brethren.”

Something swept through that crowd, something powerful and poignant. No words were uttered, only waves of sound, impelling and pregnant, moans of unutterable woe. Then came silence which grew deeper and deeper.

“Thousands and thousands and multiplied thousands are cast off from the golden opportunities because they don't believe,” the leader said. “Let us sing.”

They sang a song, an impressive song, entitled, “Wasn't That a Mighty Storm That Blew the People Away,” after which the leader led them in this prayer:

This evening, our Father,

We begin before death in early judgment,

This evening, our Father,

I come in the humblest manner I ever know'd,

Or ever thought it,

To bow.

I'm thankin’ Thee, O Lord,

That my laying down last night

Wasn't my cooling board,

And my cover was not my winding sheet.

O Lord, thanking Thee, this evening, my Father,

That my dressing room this morning was not my grave.

O Lord, thanking Thee, this evening, my Father,

That my slumber last night was not for eternity.

O Lord,

Just bless the widows and orphans in this land,

I pray Thee in Jesus’ name;

Take care of them, my Father,

And guide them;

And, then, my Father,

When they all is standing in glory,

And Thou art satisfied at my staying here,

O meet me at the river, I ask in Thy name.

Amen.

After an impressive silence the leader, in a more casual tone, said: “You knows whether you are to eat the body and drink the blood of Christ. If you eat and drink the Lord's food unworthily, you eat and drink to your damnation.” He distributed white crumbs of bread such as the men had eaten for supper and grapefruit juice from the prison commissary for the “wine.” When all who dared had participated, Sin-Killer Griffin stepped forward, dignified and solemn, and took charge of the services.

“My dear brothers and sisters [the Captain's wife was the only woman present], sinner friends all,” he began, and then, in poetic diction, impressively and hypnotically said:

The ears hears the voice

An’ notify the eye where to look.

One day as I was walking along

I heard a little whisper but I saw no one;

Something was bringing about a disturbment—

That was the wind,

The water was jumpin’ in the vessel.

The force of his voice, the intensity of his appeal, almost instantly brought from the audience exclamations:

Sho’ nuff!

Sure!

Amen!

Oh, yes!

Catching the spirit of his appeal, Sin-Killer took them into a song:

Dem little slippers dat my Lord give me

Goin’ to outshine de sun [Repeat twice];

Dat little harp-h dat my Lord give me [etc.],

Dat little robe dat my Lord give me [etc.]…

From the enthusiasm aroused by this song Sin-Killer quickly plunged into his description of the Crucifixion:

Lightnin’ played its limber gauze

When they nailed Jesus to the rugged cross,

The mountain began to tremble

When the holy body began to drop blood down upon it,

Each little silver star leaped out of its little orbit;

The sun went down on Calvary's blooded brow,

Lightnin’ was playin’ on the horse's bridle reins

As it leaped on the battlements of Glory,

When the morning star was breaking its light

On the grave.

All at once Sin-Killer broke away from his poetic chanting and with a voice that pointed like his outstretched finger, shouted:

“You keep foolin’ with the Master and He will shake the earth again.”

From this brutal warning he went from one dramatic situation in the Old Testament to another, skipped lightly to the New Testament, and back again: Moses and the burning bush, Jacob's sacrificing Isaac, the breaking of the seven seals and other scenes from Revelations—all these came forth in dramatic intensity. When Sin-Killer had to catch his breath, he started them to singing a song while he mopped his face and kept up the growing excitement of the congregation by a shouted word which fitted perfectly into the tempo of the song. Then he went back to his sermon:

Roman soldiers come riding in full speed on their horses,

And splunged Him in the side,

We seen the blood and water come out.

Oh, God A'mighty placed it in the minds of the people

Why water is for baptism

And the blood is for cleansin’.

I don't care how mean you've been,

God A'mighty's blood'll cleanse you from all sin.

I seen, my dear friends, the time moved on,

Great God looked down,

He began to look at the temple.

Jesus said to tear down the temple,

And in three days I'll rise up again in all sight.

They didn't know what He was talkin’ about—

Jesus was talkin’ about His temple body.

I seen while he was hangin’, the mounting begin to tremble

On which Jesus was hangin’ on;

The blood was dropping on the mounting,

Holy blood, dropping on the mounting, my dear friend,

Corrupting the mounting;

I seen about that time while the blood was dropping down,

One drop after another,

I seen the sun that Jesus made in creation;

The sun rose, my dear friends,

And it recognized Jesus hanging on the cross.

Just as soon as the sun recognized its Maker,

Why it closed itself and went down,

Went down in mournin’.

“Look at my Maker hanging on the cross.”

And when the sun went down, we seen the moon;

He made the moon,

My dear friends, yes, both time and seasons—

We seen, my dear friends, when the moon recognized Jesus dying on the cross,

I seen the moon, yes,

Took with a judgment hemorrhage and bleed away.

Good God looked down.

Oh, the dyin’ thief on the cross

Seen the moon goin’ down in blood.

I seen, my dear friends, about that time they looked at that,

And when the moon went down, it done bled away.

I seen the little stars, great God, that was there

On the anvil of time,

And the little stars began to show their beautiful ray of light,

And the stars recognized their Maker dyin’ on the cross.

Each little star leaped out of their silver orbit,

The torches of a unbenointed world…

It got so dark

Until the men who was puttin’ Jesus to death

They said they could feel the darkness in their fingers.

Great God A'mighty, they was close to one another,

An’ it was so dark they could feel one another and hear one another and talk,

But they couldn't see each other.

I heard one of the centurions say:

“Sholy, sholy, this must be the son of God.”

’Bout that time we seen, my dear friends, the prophet Isaiah,

Said the dead in the graves would hear his voice and come forward.

They saw the dead gettin’ up out of their graves on the east side of Jerusalem;

Gettin’ out of their graves

Walkin’ about, goin’ down in town.

Oh!…’way over on Nebo's mounting [shouted]

I seen the great lawgiver go up out of his grave and begin to walk about,

My dear friends, walking, because Jesus said,

“It is finished.”

We notice, my dear friends, here about that time—

I shouldn't wonder, my dear friends,

The church will save you when you get in trouble.

I heard the church so many times singing;

When you get overwhelmed in trouble, the church said,

How can I die while Jesus lives? [Chanted]

How can I die while Jesus lives? [Chanted by Sin-Killer and entire congregation]

I seen the horses come stepping

On Calvary's bloody brow,

Pawing, my dear friends,

Seein’ the next train was thunder;

An’ the lightnin’ was playing on the bridle reins Death had in his hands.

He come riding, he come riding,

An’ the dying thief looked death in the face,

Caught sight on the opposite side of the horse;

He saw a new name written there;

He read the name;

And the name read like this:

“Death and Hell followeth him.”

I heard the dying thief say,

“Lord, oh, Lord! Lord, oh Lord!

When Thou come to Thy Father's kingdom

I pray remember me.

Oh, motherless child, hangin’ on the cross!

An’ I want you to remember me.”

Jesus, my dear friends,

The dying thief had so much confidence in Him,

Had so much faith in Him,

Jesus hung just like He was.

Jesus, Jesus, daggered in the side,

Blood drippin’, great God.

Jesus caught a-hold of the horse, my dear friends,

Caught it by the bridle,

And the old horse begin to paw.

Oh…Elijah didn't catch a-hold of him when he was comin’.

Oh…Job didn't catch a-hold of him when he was comin’.

Oh…Great God A'mighty! Moses, the great lawgiver, didn't catch a-hold of him.

But over yonder, the incarnated Son of God [shouted]

Caught the horse by the bridle, and held him still [shouted].

Jesus begin to speak,

Says to the dying thief

“Pay no ’tention to death.”

Says to the dying thief,

Says, “This day your spirit will be with Me in Heaven.”

Says, “Oh, yes, this day, will be with me.”

I am not ashamed to own my Lord! [Chanted].

I'm not ashamed to own my Lord! [Congregation intoned].

God meet the devil when He seen him comin’,

He began to wonder where he was goin’.

You needn't wonder, but just keep still,

He's a comin’ on down.

He'll let you know what he's comin’ for.

And when he fastened the great dragon,

Great God, bound him for so many thousand years,

Seen him, my dear friends, when he got a-hold of death,

Twist the stinger away from death—

Death ain't got no dominion over a child of God.

I seen Jesus whisper from Hell to His Father,

Told him to send down angels of grace,

Let them roll back the stone;

Then stay there and “Let my mother know I am gone, as I said.”

Great God A'mighty! [shouted].

We seen when God A'mighty with His own omnipotent power,

Good God, called Michael and Gabriel, both peaceful angels.

Praise God! Jesus then told the boys,

“Don't, don't, don't harm those peoples that is settin’ at the grave;

Don't say nothin’ to ’em;

I'll give power;

I'll cause the earth to quake ahead of you.”

Good God! Those angels left God A'mighty's throne;

Yes, leaped over the battlements of glory,

I seen forty and four thousand in heaven,

Just in the moment, the twinklin’ of an eye.

Great God! three and twenty elders

Each one left their seats

Cryin’, “Holy, holy,”

And when the angels got near the earth, the earth began

To quake and tremble. The peoples began to say,

“What's the matter here?”

Good God A'mighty! First and second day, no harm, nothing happened,

But here on the third mornin’, looky here!

The earth quaking!

Good God! The earth began to quake.

’Bout that time while they were watching the earth

The angels darted down and a-seated right by the side of ’em,

Rolled back the stone,

Took a seat by the side of ’em,

Never said a word to ’em,

But just set there.

And when the angels took their seats

Good God!

Jesus got up;

Yes, got up out of his grave,

Began pullin’ off his grave clothes.

Great God! Taken the napkin from around his jaws,

Shook the girdles,

Then laid them in the grave.

We seen the angels watch old Mary and Marthy,

An’ told ’em just about when the morning star would break,

Told the girls to go on down to the grave.

Every child of God, he had something to carry to Jesus.

Oh…how you abused me in this world!

An’ how you caused me to shed briny tears!

How you caused me to stand with folded arms!

Sin-Killer closed with a mighty invitation for sinners to come forward but none did. Perhaps they had become hardened to his pleas. Alan had been able to catch only segments of the two-hour-long sermon. Every seven minutes a disc must be turned, every fourteen minutes a new one had to be inserted.

After Sin-Killer had bid farewell to the convicts he joined Alan and me. The loud speaker was turned so that the convicts could hear and three hundred of them leaned forward to listen—more intently than they had listened to the preacher. Sin-Killer was fascinated as his words came forth from the machine.

“Mr. Lomax,” he said when the last word had passed out of the loud speaker, “for a long time I'se been hearing that I'se a good preacher, now I knows it.”

I laughed through my tears.

II

One Saturday night in the prison farm at Atmore, Alabama, I spurred on two Negro preachers by offering a dollar to the one voted the best by his fellow convicts. The contest proved a failure because one of the contestants kept turning away from the microphone to exhort his hearers to repentance. One of his memorable statements about the power of God is classic:

“Brethren, I'm goin’ to make every possible way possible; I'm goin’ to make the roundabout way plain; I'm goin’ to grind the mountains down an’ make ’em level!”

A Negro convict in the penitentiary at Raleigh, North Carolina discoursed on Noah and the Ark like this:

God told Norah for to sketch his plan…

“Gonna build me a nicer world, North…”

An’ says, “What you gonna do today, good Lord?”

“I'm goin’ to prove it to the world I'm God of all power,

God A'mighty open, no man can shut ’im,

God A'mighty shut, an’ no man can open ’im,

God A'mighty ask, an’ no man can answer.”

Tendin’ to the flood…

Well, ’way East, he was sendin’ one angel,

Well, ’way North, he was sendin’ one angel,

Well, ’way South, he was sendin’ one angel,

Well, ’way West went six angels.

“I want you to hold up the vaults of the sea,

Let the water come down just like a flood,

Well, six angels,

I want you to hold up the vaults of the sea,

Let the water billow up like a mountain.

Well, fourth angel,

Well, third angel,

Well, second angel,

Well, first angel,

I want you to gather up the little pieces of scattering clouds,

Drive them in a solid mass to the sea.”

Says, water is risin’,

Says, water is fallin’,

Says, water got up by the sills of the door,

Says, they went up to the upper floor,

Says, when they got there,

Says, the water was there,

Says, they couldn't go no higher,

Says, they looked out an’ seen the ark comin’,

They had called the old man a fool about,

Well, they begin to sing an’ cry,

Says, “Oh, Norah,

Let your ark sail, sail this a-way, please.”

He says, “No, no,

Remember one hundred and twenty years ago,

Says, told you this time would be,

Says, called me a fool all over this land,

But today I'm bound to the kingdom land.”

Where you bound?

I'm bound

Kingdom land.

Where you bound?

I'm bound

Kingdom land.

When God sent the nineteenth angel

From the floors of Glory

To work among the beasts and the folkses,

Well, God sent the nineteenth angel

From the floors of Glory

To help old Norah build the ark.

Was a-building this ark one hundred and twenty years-ah,

Had one hundred and twenty nails to drive,

Had one hundred and twenty rooms to complete,

Says, “O, Norah,

What you been doing, well,

All this time-ah?”

“Been teachin’ the people to repent,

My God's gonna ’stroy this world by water.

Says, called me a fool all over this land,

But Old Man Careful,

Building for a home in the kingdom land.”

Where you bound?

I'm bound

Kingdom land.

Where you bound?

I'm bound

Kingdom land.

Just as this preacher finished his exhortation, a guard leaned over to me and asked,

“Do you know what that preacher is in this pen for?”

“No.”

“He drowned his son so that he could collect a hundred dollar insurance policy.”

But he was not the first nor the last money-minded preacher. Once I asked the Reverend Aaron Pinnacle of Heavens Gate Church, South Carolina, why he deliberately attempted in his sermons to make his congregation shout. I had seen young girls dive through the air and fall headlong on the hard floor in defiance of bruised flesh and broken bones; I had seen the men, more careful of bodily injuries, hold them in their arms to prevent further injury. The Reverend Pinnacle, coal black and intelligent looking, replied frankly,

“If I didn't preach shoutin’ sermons my congregation won't pay me nothing.”

But then their asking did not stop with stirring up the emotions of their congregation: they actually believed in the efficacy of prayer as a “gettin’ instrument.” J. L. Goree of Houston sent me this Negro's description of an “askin’” preacher:

Yonder come Brother Zeke. He ain't much on preachin’, but he's the out-prayinest Parson that ever went to town on Sat'day. He can ask fo’ mo’ things in less time than airy farmer that ever flung buckshot mud off'n his boots. When he steps out to the edge of the pulpit an’ stretches his arms out front of him an’ rolls his eyes up to the skies an’ starts prayin’, it looks jes’ like he's expecting the good Lord to start drappin’ the blessin's in his arms then an’ there. Like the time back in 1932. Brother Zeke walked out to the edge of the pulpit, an’ rolled his eyes to the sky an’ stretched his arms straight out in front of him an’ started prayin’:

“Oh-o-o, Marster, Thou hath know'd me from the day of my birth even unto this day an’ time. Thou knowest me in the days of prosperity when the manna was plentiful hereabouts; an’ Thou seeth me in them days, Oh-o-o, Marster, Thou seeth me in them days goin’ round sowin’ seeds of righteousness ’mongst the thorns of iniquity, an’ Thou said, ’Let it be so.’ An’, oh-o-o, Marster, it was so.

“Now, oh-o-o Marster, Thou seeth me in these days of adversity, oh-o-o, Marster, Thou seeth me goin’ up'n down the cotton fiel’, tryin’, oh-o-o Master, tryin’ by the sweat of my brow to feed six children with some four cent cotton. Thou seeth me on Sunday mornin’ goin’ down the Big Road with my elbows out an’ the bottoms of my foots reachin’ the groun’ through the soles of my shoes. Thou hast hear'd the Bossman say that the cotton us done raise won't compensate him for the meat us done et. Now, oh-o-o, Marster, even as Thou knoweth all things that's possible, Thou knoweth also that feedin’ six children on four cent cotton ain't one of ’em; and I beseech Thee, oh-o-o, Marster, I beseech Thee to look down deep in the bottom of my heart, an’ make search roundabout an’ if you find airy hoe, airy gee-whiz, airy go-devil, airy mule or airy cotton-planter, pluck them, oh-o-o Marster, pluck them an’ cast ’em into the sea of everlastin’ forgetfulness; for as long as cotton ain't worth but four cents, I ain't goin’ need them no mo.’ Amen.”

Folks, you know that prayer it got answered, yessir, it sho’ was answered; for it weren't long before the good Lord took an’ drapped this here Mister Roosevelt right down in Brother Zeke's arms, an’ said, “Give that Negro ten cents for his cotton!”

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Additional Information

ISBN
9781574410990
Related ISBN
9781574410990
MARC Record
OCLC
45885580
Pages
9-20
Launched on MUSE
2019-12-20
Language
English
Open Access
Yes
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