Prince has shared a solo version of his cover of the spiritual turned gospel classic, “Mary Don’t You Weep, that you can listen to above.
Based on a spiritual written before the Civil War, an arrangement of the song was written in 1957 by Reverend Claude Jeter for his gospel ensemble, the Swan Silvertones that has become the definitive arrangement of the song. It was first recorded by the Fisk Jubilee Singers in 1915, and served as an inspiration for “Bridge Over Troubled Water” written by Paul Simon, based on a line that Jeter sang: “I’ll be a bridge over deep water if you trust in my name.”
Over the years, the song has been covered by both gospel and secular performers. One of the most inspiring covers of it was Aretha Franklin’s live version of it from her classic album, Amazing Grace. James Brown borrowed the song’s gospel feel and secularized the lyrics, rewriting it as “Oh Baby Don’t You Weep.”
In 2014, The Swan Silvertones recording of it was inducted into the Library of Congress’s National Recording Registry. Writing about their version of it, gospel historian and Gospel Roots contributor Jerry Zolten had this to say:
“Oh Mary Don’t You Weep” is one of the ethereal African American spirituals–a freedom song–born in the anonymity of slavery and drifted across time to bubble up as the need arose. The song might have been lost to the ages had it not been resurrected by the Fisk University Jubilee Singersof Nashville, Tennessee, who performed it on their post-bellum worldwide tours and were the first to record it as “O Mary Don’t You Weep, Don’t You Mourn” in New York City on October 23, 1915.
In 1958, as the Civil Rights Movement was heating up the Swan Silvertones (“Swan” was the name of the bakery that sponsored them) recorded
their stunningly brilliant version of “Oh Mary Don’t You Weep” (Vee Jay 879), that meaning hit home especially. The Silvertones were led by Claude Jeter with Paul Owens, John Myles, and William Connor (Louis Johnson, a regular in the line-up, may not have been present) delivered a tour de force performancerecorded live in the studios of radio station WENW in Bessemer, Alabama. In his singular arrangement, Jeter deconstructed the traditional “Oh Mary Don’t You Weep” and reassembled it as nothing less than a battle cry for freedom.
Against the backdrop of electric guitar, hand clapping, and what might be the beat of feet stomping on the floor, Connor’s bass voice pumps out a driving rhythm as Owens and Myles in a supercharged vocal exchange spur Jeter on to falsetto heights . In the space of three minutes the performance builds from calmly pulsing to a wailing mantra punctuated by Jeter’s electrifying falsetto mewls and shouts of the name “Mary.”
Prince’s version, recorded in 1983, is from Piano & A Microphone: 1983, out September 21, and was recorded during a rehearsal at Prince’s home studio in Chanhassen, Minnesota. His version of it is a soulful, slowed down intimate blues inflected performance.
This article and audio piece was written for WXPN’S GOSPEL ROOTS OF ROCK AND SOUL.
GOSPEL ROOTS OF ROCK AND SOUL has been supported by The Pew Center for Arts & Heritage.