Who Built the Ark?

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Detail from: Design drawing for stained glass window with Old Testament figures: Noah, Abraham, and Moses for Old Mariners’ Church in Detroit, Michigan. Full catalog information is at the link.

Noah’s ark has inspired a virtual boatload of songs in the collections of the Library of Congress.  Since Noah is, after all, a Bible character, it’s only natural that most of the songs about him are spirituals expressing religion and morality. As an example, listen to the song “Who Built the Ark?” recorded by Alan Lomax from the Georgia singer Bessie Jones in 1962.

Find it at this link.

“Who Built the Ark?” teaches an important lesson, stressing Noah’s hard work and his steadfast obedience to God despite being considered a fool by his neighbors. It concludes with the moral:

Noah obeyed everything God said
And all his family was saved that day.

There are other lessons to be learned from the Noah story, too.  In another of Bessie Jones’s songs, “Old Ark’s A Moverin’,” life is likened to the ark, a moving ship on which our salvation depends. Walking on the ark is treacherous, and must be handled with care:

Mind, my sister, how you walk on across
Your feet may slip, and your soul get lost!

Hear it at this link.

Songs about Noah could also carry an apocalyptic message, predicting the destruction of the world by fire. On May 17, 1939, about thirteen miles outside Merryville, Louisiana, along the highway into DeRidder, John and Ruby Lomax stopped at the New Zion Baptist Church to record Deacon Sylvester Johnson and a group of singers including Rufus Spearman. One of the songs they recorded, “Home on the Rock,” ended with the lines:

God showed Noah by the rainbow sign
No more water but fire next time

Sadly, the Lomaxes ran out of disc space before this line was sung, as you can hear at this link. But they dutifully wrote out the lyrics in their fieldnotes on the trip, preserving the full song for the AFC’s archive.

It’s not the only time this couplet has been collected by the Library of Congress fieldworkers. In fact, the couplet transcends song genres: while it seems to have originated in spirituals like “Home on the Rock,” it also appears in secular songs, and even in work songs. As an example, listen to a track-lining song recorded by Herbert Halpert from railroad worker Henry Hankins in Tuscumbia, Alabama, in 1939.  (The song, which you can play in the player below, is numbered AFC 1939/005: AFS 02946 A1.)

The couplet “God showed Noah by the rainbow sign/ No more water but fire next time” is an interesting summary of, and commentary on, Genesis 9:9-17, in which God shows Noah the first rainbow and tells him it is the sign of a new covenant: God will never again destroy the earth by flood. In the Bible, God does not mention fire at all, which makes the song’s invocation of fire stand out, especially to alert and educated hearers. It has been seen as a reference to the Second Coming as described in the Second Epistle of Peter or in Paul’s second letter to the Thessalonians.

More generally, though, it’s a sardonic acknowledgement that God only promised not to destroy the Earth by water, which leaves other possibilities open, and that there are still wicked people in the world to be punished “next time.” It leaves unsaid who those people might be, allowing African Americans in slavery and under Jim Crow laws to comment on the wickedness of their oppressors clandestinely, while on the surface they were just telling wholesome bible stories. Such eloquent but coded communication, transforming spirituals into hidden messages of protest, is a hallmark of African American folklore, a fact which has been recognized by black scholars for generations.

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