The blood done sign my name
Origins: Text. This traditional spiritual, even in modern times, has been transmitted aurally and can’t be said to have a definitive printing or form, but is traceable historically to the early 20th century. Its first appearance in print was in The American Journal of Religious Psychology and Education, vol. 3, no. 3 (July 1909), in an article by Howard W. Odum (1884–1954), “Religious folk songs of the Southern negroes” (pp. 265-365: PDF). In his article, Odum described the variable nature of these songs:
An exact classification of negro songs, either as to subject-matter or as to form, is scarcely possible. There is little unity of thought in their content; their metres conform to no consistent standards. A single favorite stanza, regardless of its meaning, is constantly being sung in a dozen different songs. It is a distinct folk-song and it matters little to which one it belongs; it serves its purpose in any one of them. So in the form of the verse, a single tune is adapted to lines that differ widely in length; likewise a single line is not infrequently made to fit into any tune that is desired. Again, no final version of any song can be given. The lines are rarely sung in exactly the same form. There are ordinarily as many versions of a line as there are combinations of the words without spoiling the effect of the rhyme or emphatic word. The stanzas have no order of sequence, but are sung as they occur in the mind of the singer; a song does not have a standard number of stanzas, but the length depends upon the time in which it is wanted to sing that particular song. In the songs that follow, the most common versions are given (p. 301).
What follows is a collection of dozens of songs, without music, collected from across the southern U.S. His brief introduction to “De blood done sign my name” is sadly pejorative:
It is gratifying to the negroes that their sins have been “washed in the blood of the Lamb,” as indeed it ought to be. Perhaps they give it its undue prominence without thought; for they have no conception of the seriousness of their claims. The negro singers have exhibited a characteristic specimen of their word combinations, concrete pictures, and theological principles in their song, “De blood done sign my name” (p. 345 | Fig. 1).
Fig. 1: The American Journal of Religious Psychology and Education, vol. 3, no. 3 (July 1909).
This version of the text includes nine stanzas. A few years later, the text appeared again in an article by his wife, Anna Kranz Odum (1888–1965), “Some negro folk-songs from Tennessee,” in The Journal of American Folklore, vol. 27, no. 105 (July–Sept. 1914), pp. 255-265. The song was collected under these circumstances:
The following negro folk-songs were heard in Sumner County, Tennessee, and were all sung by the children of one family, sometimes two or three of the children singing “parts,” but oftener by one girl of fifteen, who sang as she worked. These children could not read, and they sang only the songs they had heard from their elders at home, in the fields, or at church; and they represent a link in the perpetuation of the negro folk-songs. They live in a rural community of negroes whose inhabitants are somewhat stationary, but not isolated. A few of the songs which they sang have been published before; but the versions are different, and they are given here for the purpose of comparison with the same songs from the other localities (p. 255).
Mrs. Odum also described the variability of the music:
The manner of singing was characteristic. There were unlimited variations in the sequences of stanzas and refrain; verses from different songs were brought together; and there was much freedom in the “part” singing, both with the words and the tunes. . . . The little variations in the words of the stanzas, the tunes, the arrangement of verses, the musical expressions, and the dialect, prevent the simplest song from growing monotonous with frequent repetitions. The same song seldom followed the same order of verses and refrain when heard at different times (p. 255).
Regarding this specific song, she cited its previous publication in her husband’s article, but noted the variations from that other transcription (Fig. 2). This printing offered seven stanzas, only three of which bore any resemblance to the other version.
Tune. The first appearance of this song with music was in Saint Helena Island Spirituals, Recorded and Transcribed at Penn Normal, Industrial and Agricultural School, St. Helena Island, Beaufort County, South Carolina (1925 | Fig. 3). The songs were collected and transcribed by Nicholas Ballanta, a student-scholar from Sierra Leone, and he gave some indications of his methods:
The melodies of the spirituals contained in this volume were written down as sung by different individuals and by different groups of singers at Penn. … The harmonies of the spirituals were supplied by the St. Helena Quartette, … whose singing is an evidence of the advance in harmonic conception, that is, the feeling for definite tonality, attained by the Negro in his new environment (p. xvii).
This version of “De blood done sign my name” was harmonized by the quartet and given with five stanzas, many of which were not present in the earlier printings. The melody reflects the common received tradition of the song (see below) and shows that the song has remained generally stable over the last 100 years.
Fourteen years later, this spiritual was included in a small collection called Humbard Family Songs (Little Rock, Arkansas, ca. 1939 | Fig. 4). This version included six stanzas, some of which were similar to the printings in 1909 and 1914. The header contains contradictory information, with “Negro Spiritual” clearly given under the title, while also naming A.E. Humbard as the author of both words and tune. It is certainly possible that Humbard added his own touch to the piece, perhaps in certain turns of the melody or in some of the stanzas, but his exact contribution is unclear.
Recordings. In spite of the song being practically nonexistent in hymnals, it is still well known among church congregations, mostly through recordings and oral tradition. Recordings of the song exist as early as the 1920s, as performed by the Novelty Four Quartet and preserved on an album distributed by Document Records, Vocal Quartets Vol. 5 (1924–1928), available through iTunes, Amazon, and through other sources. The song was also recorded in 1944 by blues singer Leadbelly, preserved by Document Records (DOCD-5310) on Leadbelly: Complete Recorded Works, Vol. 4. For an example of common performance practice, see this rendition by Tri-Faith, a self-described “family, Christian singing group,” in a recording posted to YouTube, Christmas 2016:
by CHRIS FENNER
for Hymnology Archive
30 July 2018, rev. 12 Aug. 2018
Eileen Southern & Josephine Wright, African-American Traditions in Song, Sermon, Tale, and Dance, 1600s-1920: An Annotated Bibliography, Greenwood Encyclopedia of Black Music (NY: Greenwood Press, 1990).