Yesterday I was feeling kind of sorry for myself and started singing “Nobody Knows the Trouble I’ve Seen.” Now, I feel kind of bad about that. After all, I’ve lived a pretty charmed life. Sure, I’ve seen a lot of trouble, but it’s almost entirely my own damned fault. Just the same, relative suffering is worse than absolute suffering. Think of Richard Wilkinson’s work on inequality and how relative inequality is the killer. So I think I can be allowed my meta-grumbles.
I hardly have a good voice for “Nobody Know the Trouble I’ve Seen.” So I went on YouTube to find some performances of it. The song itself dates back to at least the middle of the 19th century — and could be much older than that. It does seem a natural song to come out of slavery.
By the early 20th century, the song had been co-opted by classical musicians of the time. And this resulted in Marian Anderson having the first really successful version of it. That was in 1924 when she was 27 years old. And she would live almost 70 years afterward.
It’s a very restrained performance, focused on the music. What’s probably most interesting is that I always think of it as a song sung by a man. But that isn’t at all the case, as this version, and many others attest.
Two years later, Paul Robeson recorded the song. His deep bass voice is irresistible. Still, his performance is very similar to Anderson’s. It’s hardly surprising, however. Slavery was still a living memory. And it isn’t like life was that great for blacks then either.
Here is a later recording where his performance is more emotional and free:
In 1941, trumpeter and bandleader Harry James recorded an instrumental version of the song. It’s good, but it is performed just as a tune. It’s very much in the style of Glenn Miller. One can almost imagine it accompanying a Looney Tunes cartoon.
By the 1950s, the song seemed to be something different for everyone. Louis Armstrong recorded it in 1958. It’s kind of hard to know what to make of it. Armstrong was so idiosyncratic and so talented that he transcends everything. I’m not keen on the arrangement. And his spoken word segments would embarrass me if they were done by anyone else. But it’s just wonderful — joyous without losing the weariness of the song.
A couple of years later, Sam Cooke recorded the song in his own inimitable way. It is both rocking and sad. I don’t know. Cooke was such an amazing talent that it really is pointless to talk about. Just listen:
Let’s finish off with a real gospel version of the song by Mahalia Jackson. She recorded the song a few times. This version was (like much of her work) not released during her lifetime. But I figure it was recorded in the late 1960s or early 1970s (she died in 1972). It’s the kind of performance that makes me feel like I’m missing out by not being a Christian:
So that’s all. This isn’t really a history of “Nobody Knows the Trouble I’ve Seen.” But it does give you a good idea of how the musicians have changed in their thinking of it. In the 1950s, things get very postmodern in the sense of everyone just doing their own thing. But there are times when those very serious early versions are preferable.
I have read many of your posts. You seem to be a really decent person. Educated, smart and caring.
Reading your posts – the only thing I wonder is if you are too tough on yourself. Hey life is short – give yourself a break and smell the roses.
Thank you. I think “decent” is about the highest compliment one can get. But I’m really not that hard on myself. At least not right now. As Randy Newman said, “My life is good!”
@ Jon — But it’s the self-criticism which creates the good writing. David Brooks and Tom Friedman are so boring precisely because they’re so sure of their importance. You need a memory of fucking up a relationship to write “A Good Year For The Roses.”
@ Frank — Now I feel guilty, as sometimes I’ve mocked my self-pity by going into a Robeson parody voice and intoning, “Nobody knows …” I shouldn’t make fun of the song, it’s actually quite lovely. One of those songs that seem to predate history, like “Greensleeves” or “Down By The Riverside.”
Don’t feel bad. But that’s true. I think Wikipedia said it was published in a collection of slave songs in 1862 or something. Amazing.
@James Filmore – you lost me dude. What do two non fiction writers have anything to do with writing a song?
Those are two very different things. Plus why are you so angry? Did I somehow upset you? If so -I am very sorry.
Not angry at all, my good fellow. All apologies for being imprecise in what I typed.
What I intended to express is that self-criticism is, to me, the soul of good writing. It’s about admitting to failure, loss, regret. Your point was that the author should be less hard on himself. I quite agree, but I greedily want writing created by a soul-sick bastard. Just as I want music created by people processing pain and guilt and loss. It’s more fun for me!
I think you misread James. He was saying that pain produces good work. Although I disagree with him about that song. That was pure craft. There’s an interview somewhere on YouTube where Jerry Chestnut talks about writing it. Great song. And that’s not to say that he didn’t use his own heartbreaks in writing the song.
@James Filmore lol ahhh now I understand.