Sunday, April 20, 2008

Mary, Don't You Weep

Last night, my gang and I went to a Passover seder at the house of a family friend. Today it was our turn to host, and we had a full house. Eight adults and three kids. Whew. But we had a lovely time and it all went well. This was my third time leading a seder, and I think I'm getting a bit more confident.

One of the bits of preparation I did was (as best I could) researching the history and symbolism of the African-American Christian spiritual turned Passover song "Mary, Don't You Weep." As I described in last years post about including "Go Down Moses" in a seder, I was brought up by my father on American folk music. When my father leads the seder he typically pulls out his guitar and leads the family in "Go Down Moses," "Mary, Don't You Weep" and other folk tunes with some Passover connection. These two songs are particularly apt because of the contemporary liberation (slavery / civil rights) connection.

"Go Down, Moses" is pretty straight forward and easy to include. "Mary, Don't You Weep" is another matter. If you look at the lyrics, you'll see that "Mary" is really a Christian song. Despite attempts by some to connect the Mary of the song with Miriam, Mary is really the Christian Mary of Bethany, sister of Lazarus. It takes some creative trimming of lyrics to get rid of those bits and render the song useful for Passover. But trimming and repurposing folk songs is a part of what makes them 'folk' songs. So no apologies. Here's just the intro, in case you haven't heard the song before...
"Oh Mary don't you weep, don't you mourn
Oh Mary don't you weep, don't you mourn
Cause Pharaoh's army got drownded,
Oh Mary don't you weep.

If I could I surely would, stand on the rock where Moses stood
Cause Pharaoh's army got drownded
Oh Mary don't you weep"
While my father isn't the only American Jew to use "Mary" in a Seder (see the 'Passover Blog' for at least one other example), it isn't as common as "Go Down Moses." One possible place my father would have come into contact with it is through the folk musician Pete Seeger. Seeger is one of my father's favorite musicians and a mainstay of the populist, pro-union, working man's protest music scene of the 50's and 60's. (I remember being taken to Seeger concert at the Sounding Board, in Hartford Ct sometime as kid in the late 70's. I knew it was a big deal show because it took place in the main area of the church instead of in the church cellar that the Sounding Board usually rented.)

Seeger, like many other folkies of the time, wrote many of his own songs but also specialized in popularizing traditional tunes by connecting them to topical events. Seeger, in particular, was known for popularizing the song "We Shall Overcome" in support of the civil rights movement. Here's a video of Seeger performing "Mary" with a young Bernice Johnson Reagon, future member of the singing group "Sweet Honey in the Rock" on civil rights show called "The Rainbow Quest." If you listen, you'll hear that in Seeger's version, the lyrics are clipped to remove the Christian references. I'm assuming that Seeger wasn't thinking of Passover but was using the familiar Exodus story as a parallel for the civil rights struggle (much as "Go Down Moses" does). That particular editing and thematic connection, though, makes it perfect for Passover.

P. Seeger, B.J. Reagon, J. Ritchie - O Mary, Don't You Weep


Getting back to our seder yesterday, we invited over some Christian friends of ours who had never been to a seder before. Adding the "Moses" and "Mary" into the more traditional seder gave them two points of familiarity and inclusion. My seder is an English and Hebrew mix, so while they had no trouble following the Haggadah, these were the only songs that they felt confident to sing along to. We also used the fact that "Mary" had been repurposed from the Christian tradition as a point to talk about the Christian view of the Exodus and the role of the Passover seder in the Easter narrative. This was nice moment of them teaching us about their faith. So in essence, we got to sit around sharing the meaning of the song as way to talk to each other. I can't think of a better use for a folk song.

Hat tip to YouTube user peglegsam for posting the Seeger video. Peglegsam has a posted an amazing archive of Rainbow Quest videos as well as blues and folk music performances.

3 comments:

Phyllis Sommer said...

interesting way to integrate american civil rights history into the seder...i like it!

Jack said...

I'm glad! The funny thing for me is that I'm fairly sure it was mostly unintentional for my father. My father was always tinkering with the haggadah, trying to find ways to tell the story better. He was very conscious of the Shoah and deliberately connected the Hebrews who died in bondage prior to the Exodus (e.g. Joseph's generation) with the Jews who didn't survive the war. He didn't make that same explicit point about connecting civil rights history. It just happened anyway because of his song choices. I'm sure he's pleased by the association, but I don't think he was deliberately going for one. I'll have to ask him.

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