John Sieger
Sieger On Songs

“Since I Laid My Burdens Down”

Mississippi John Hurt version of this country blues song is unforgettable.

By - Feb 2nd, 2016 04:53 pm
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Mississippi John Hurt

Mississippi John Hurt

On the heels of a scathing story in The Toronto Star portraying Milwaukee as either the most racist or most segregated city in the country, or maybe even both — and also on the run-up to the third Milwaukee Gospel Jubilee on Friday February 5th, I am left with a feeling that is trending toward un-jubilant. The story casts a long shadow on our city, and a longer, darker one on the surrounding counties, sometimes called the WOWs, for Washington, Ozaukee and Waukesha. Funny, because I was saying wow to myself as I read the blatantly racist remarks some of the white residents were sharing with no apparent shame. Being characterized as living 60 years in the past looks like a fair assessment after you read the story.

There are a lot of groups in this city trying to put salve on the open wound of racism, poverty and segregation. Two very important contributors to the spiritual and physical health of of Milwaukee’s most disadvantaged are an institution called Progressive Community Health Centers, and a group of artists who possess the keys to the musical kingdom, Milwaukee’s Gospel community. They join hands this Friday for the 3rd Annual Milwaukee Gospel Jubilee at Turner Hall. It’s a fundraiser and spirit lifter.

If my constant praise of Gospel Music seems a little one-note to those who read this column, I’m sorry. But I’m not going to suddenly pretend the music that I love, along with a pretty large portion of the world, started anywhere other than in the South. Some of it was created by poor whites, but many of the best of that group, including Jimmy Rodgers, Bill Monroe, Hank Williams and Elvis Presley, were simply trying to imitate what they heard being played by black people, the only ones doing worse than them.

There was a time, and I’m not so sure it’s past, when the revolving door between Black Gospel and more popular styles was well oiled, with ridiculously gifted artists spinning mostly to the pop side with it’s bigger paychecks. I wrote about one last week, Aretha Franklin. If I had to, I could write about her every week —  she has set up shop on at the very top of the mountain and, when last viewed, was more queenly than ever.

But this week we get closer to the source, a man who played Country Blues, but didn’t mind singing the occasional Gospel song from time to time. Here’s Mississippi John Hurt singing the traditional, pretty much ubiquitous “Since I Laid My Burden Down.” Hurt recorded blues in the late 1920s and these records are treasured by collectors. He then disappeared and went back to farming, only to be rediscovered in the early 1960’s during the Folk invasion. He played colleges and coffee houses, serenading those lucky enough to see him with one of the most angelic voices ever heard by mortals beneath the clouds.

He used that voice to sing songs that had surprisingly earthly concerns. His topics, not all that different from those of gangster rap, were presented slyly. They sounded like children’s songs, with sweet melodies masking the wicked double entendres. Spoiler alert: “Candy Man” is not a song about candy!

The other harder to imitate hallmark of his greatness was his syncopated fingerpicking. This affable guy got more young college students and aspiring folkies to apply bare fingers to metal strings than almost any blues man. His stuff was tricky — one lifetime is not nearly enough to play with the kind of nuance and swing he displayed. Most students of that style should probably sit on a tractor for 30 or 40 years, cause who knows?… it might help.

For one so earthly and heavenly, passing between the two worlds had to have been as easy as walking across the room. He didn’t change styles to sing Gospel, he didn’t have to. He fit equally well in a church and at a rent party. This song is as old as time itself and has been sung by choirs, quartets, ministers and church-goers. There probably isn’t a Baptist church in the south it hasn’t been performed in. Here, as straightforward and simple as can be, are the lyrics:

Glory, glory, hallelujah,
Since I laid my burden down
Glory, glory, hallelujah,
Since I laid my burden down

Friends don’t treat me like they used to
Since I laid my burden down
Friends don’t treat me like they used to
Since I laid my burden down

I feel better, so much better
Since I laid my burden down
I feel better, so much better
since I laid my burden down.

Feel like shouting, hallelujah,
Since I laid my burden down
Feel like shouting, hallelujah,
Since I laid my burden down

I am climbing Jacob’s ladder
Since I laid my burden down
I am climbing Jacob’s ladder
Since I laid my burden down

Every round goes higher and higher
Since I laid my burden down
Every round goes higher and higher
Since I laid my burden down

© Public Domain

Public Domain would be a great band name. What it means is someone with no inkling of publishing or music law wrote it long ago, then after everyone picked up on it and altered it, that person was forgotten. You can see the appeal when you study the lyric. It’s a repetitive pattern easily learned — no need to write it down, which was good where literacy rates were low. You hear it and learn it almost at the same time, so it’s not too hard to get the congregation singing along.

Music wasn’t always made digitally and distributed over ghost networks through tiny earbuds in anonymous spaces that are nowhere in particular. It once was was specific — real people in a room, pushing air molecules around in a beautiful way, lifting spirits in hard times. Hard times not all that different from the ones much of Milwaukee, unfortunately, still sees. Please come to Turner Hall on Friday, February 5th and hear how this great music has grown in ways John Hurt couldn’t have imagined — but would probably somehow still recognize.

The Milwaukee Gospel Jubilee at Turner Hall includes performances by six gospel groups: New Gospel Five, The Milwaukee Community Quartet, Levi Gospel Singers, Holy Hill Ensemble, Voices of Faith, and The Skylight Singers. Friday, February 5, Doors 6:30 p.m., Show 7:30 p.m., Turner Hall Ballroom.

2 thoughts on “Sieger On Songs: “Since I Laid My Burdens Down””

  1. Christina Zawadiwsky says:

    You’re right – real people in a room, interacting with one another – and we should all try to get back to that!

  2. Barbara Smith says:

    Please correct the headline, which reads “Burdens”, instead of “Burden.”

    I got to see this blues master at the Newport Folk Festival in 1965 and have a nice photo of him; this was the same year that Dylan was booed off the stage for plugging in his guitar. Hurt is one of the very best!

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