Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child

Auction block

Auction block

I’m missing my family here in my new hometown. My heart aches for them. To help me make it through these sad hours of lonely weekends I’ve been listening to a favourite Negro spiritual, Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child.  In this instance I feel like a childless father but the separation and longing that lies in the great quiet spaces of separated families is identical.

An escaped 19th century American slave, Harriet Jacobs, is quoted in Wade in the Water: The Wisdom of the Spirituals by A. C. Jones:

One of these sale days, I saw a mother and seven children on the auction block. She knew that some of them would be taken from her; but they took all. The children were sold to a slave trader, and their mother was bought by [another] man in her own town. …She begged the slave trader to tell here where he intended to take them; this he refused to do….[for] he would sell them one by one whenever he could command the highest price. I met that mother on the street and her wild haggard face lives today in my mind. She wrung her hands in anguish and exclaimed, “Gone! All Gone! Why don’t God kill me?” I had no words wherewith to comfort her. Instances of this kind are of daily, yea, of hourly occurrence.

This old and revered slavery spiritual was born in the anguish experienced by the mothers and children that Jacobs described.  Like most spirituals its origin is of one unimaginable pain. Having your babies pulled violently away from you and sold to another. Being removed from your father’s lands to be enslaved and abused for the rest of your days.  To live in Hell on Earth.  In these losses however, rest seeds of hope.

Sometimes I don’t feel like an orphan. I may be almost gone but I’m not completely done for. There are moments of reunion here in this world and especially, great hope for meeting again in the next.

Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child has been recorded by nearly every singer or musician in America. It has been countrified, jazzed up, made to sound operatic, sung as a rough blues and even given a reggae beat.   The appeal of the song, its ability to give voice to that very human need for a mother’s love, which is unconditional and always there at the worst points in life though, is universal.

The Washerman’s Dog has put together a compendium of 44 interpretations of this song to demonstrate how widely it speaks. As I’ve listened to these songs over and over again I’m amazed by how each artist is able to find a unique way to tell the essential truth.  Some have added additional verses, others have mixed a couple of versions together and still others riff on the theme of mother and child separation.  I’ve listened to these songs over and over, back to back and do not find myself thinking’, ‘Enough already!’ Rather each version is different and compelling.

I hope you feel the love!

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Track Listing:

01 Summertime and I Feel Like a Motherless Child [Mahalia Jackson]

02 Motherless Children Have A Hard Time [Blind Willy McTell]

03 Freedom [Richie Havens]

04 Sometimes I Feel Like A Motherless Child [Ewa Mikulska and Andrezj Mikulski]

05 Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child [Paul Robeson]

06 Sometimes I Feel Like A Motherless Child [Wynton Marsalis]

07 Motherless Child [Les Humphries Singers]

08 Sometimes I Feel Like A Motherless Child [Jimmy Scott]

09 Motherless Child [Eric Clapton]

10 Orphan Girl (live) [Gillian Welch and David Rawlings]

11 Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child [Lena Horne]

12 Motherless Child [Lou Rawls]

13 Motherless Child [Peter Paul and Mary]

14 Motherless Child [Instrumental] (RZA)

15 Sometimes I Feel Like A Motherless Child [Louis Armstrong]

16 Sometimes I Feel Like A Motherless Child [Odetta]

17 No Mother or Dad [Natchez Express]

18 I`m A Motherless Child [Ike and Tina Turner]

19 Sometimes I Feel Like A Motherless Child [Clara Ward]

20 Summertime and I Feel Like a Motherless Child {Beth Nielsen Chapman]

21 Motherless Children [Roseanne Cash]

22 Motherless Child [Blind Boys of Alabama]

23 Sometimes I Feel Like A Motherless Child [Van Morrison]

24 Motherless Child [Sweet Honey in the Rock]

25 Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child [Pete Seeger]

26 Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child [Charlie Haden and Hank Jones]

27 Motherless Children Have a Hard Time [Blind Willie Johnson]

28 Motherless Children [Bob Dylan]

29 Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child [Charlie Rich]

30 Motherless Child [O.V.Wright]

31 Motherless Children [Gregory Issacs]

32 Motherless Child Blues [Elvie Thomas]

33 Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child [Isabelle Lucas]

34 Motherless Child [The Wailin’ Jennys]

35 Motherless Children [Kelly Joe Phelps]

36 Sometimes I Feel Like A Motherless Child [Kathleen Emery]

37 Sometimes I Feel Like A Motherless Child [Johnny Nash]

38 Motherless Children [Mance Lipscomb]

40 (Sometimes I Feel Like A) Motherless Child [Memphis Slim]

40 Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child [Ray Brown and Milt Jackson]

41 They Gave Me Away [Champion Jack Dupree]

42 Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child [Rev. Johnny L. Jones]

43 Motherless Children [Staple Singers]

44 Motherless Child [Esther Ophrain]

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9 thoughts on “Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child

  1. Avana

    Thank you for sharing this. It pleased me very much to see that the great singer Paul Robeson is also included. A great singer with an amazing and remarkable personal history. When I listen to his rendition of “Sometimes I feel like a Motherless Child”…it truly captures to me what this feeling means and it reminds me of my late dad who was a big fan of Paul Robeson and he used to play all of his records (some 78rpm!) every Saturday…A heartfelt rendition!

    Reply
  2. Phillip

    Amazing how one song has captured the consciousness all around the world, and in so many different forms. A great selection, thanks Nate. And here’s two more – one by Jeannie Lewis (briefly) and the second from Clarence Smith (hoping the links work).

    [audio src="https://www.dropbox.com/s/9nsasnn89lgytuf/01%20Motherless%20Child_It's%20Up%20To%20You.m4a" /]

    https://dl-web.dropbox.com/get/01%20Sometimes%20I%20Feel%20Like%20A%20Motherless%20Child.m4a?w=AADQQi5HZ1HYtZ8B99zi8mKes0xGtAe0OvIskV4j7mmCaw

    Reply
  3. AmbroseBierce

    Thank you so much – this is my favourite song. But the two in my mind most beautiful version are not in your compilation: one is a voice-only version by the great jazz singer Jeanne Lee from the early 1960s, the other one is Archie Shepp’s soprano sax accompanied on piano by Horace Parlan, recorded in the end of the 1980s.

    Reply
  4. Pingback: Motherless Child | njrabe

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