Misheard Lyrics:
Cave Love Has Gained the Day
Why the 1920's?

Orphan Songs, Part 8:
Motherless Children Have a Hard Time

Blind_willie_johnson

Much as in yesterday's story of misheard lyrics, Columbia recording engineers misunderstood the title of Blind Willie Johnson's 1927 recording "Motherless Children Have a Hard Time" to be, instead, "Mother's Children Have a Hard Time," which is how it appeared in their notes and on the label of the publicly-released record.

The background to this story is perhaps less amusing than yesterday's. Willie Johnson's mother died when he was only a baby, probably just before 1905. His father's second marriage didn't go well — to punish Willie's father, his stepmother dashed a pan of lye into 7-year-old Willie's face, blinding him permanently. Willie soon dedicated his life to singing spirituals, and is today often considered one of the best ever recorded.

"Motherless Children Have a Hard Time" is arguably his most widely-known recording. Just on the face of it, the performance is great — its vocals are intense, and its slide "blues" guitar is dazzling. But in light of Johnson's biography, it's one of the most amazing 3 minutes in all of audio recording history. I actually find it a little shocking, as if it's perhaps too intimate a glimpse into Johnson's life. Here are the lyrics, as best as I can tell:

Well, well, well ...
Motherless children have a hard time
Motherless children have a hard time,
When Mother's dead
They'll not have anywhere to go,
Wanderin' around from door to door
Have a hard time

Nobody on earth can take your mother's place
When Mother is dead, Lord
Nobody on earth takes Mother's place
When Mother's dead
Nobody on earth takes Mother's place,
When you were starting, she paved the way
Nobody treats you like Mother will

Your wife, your husband may be good to you
When Mother is dead, Lord
Be good to you, when Mother's dead
Your wife, your husband may be good to you,
But they'll find another and prove untrue
Nobody treats you like Mother will when,
When Mother is dead, Lord

Well some people say that sister will do
When Mother is dead, Lord
Sister will do when Mother's dead
Some people say that sister will do,
Soon as she's married, she'll turn her back on you
Nobody treats you like Mother will

Father will do the best he can
When Mother is dead, Lord
Well, the best he can, when Mother's dead
Father will do the best he can,
But so many things a father can't understand
Nobody treats you like Mother will

Motherless children have a hard time
When Mother is dead, Lord
Motherless children have a hard time, Mother's dead
They'll not have anywhere to go,
Wanderin' around from door to door
Have a hard time

The misreading of "motherless children" as "mother's children" is no great sin. Johnson is admittedly hard to understand — I challenge you to confirm my transcription of the lyrics. It ain't easy.

But the well-heeled, white male recordists from up North apparently heard the song as mourning the fact that children have a hard time because they are "Mother's." Their misunderstanding, however unintentional, was neither random nor neutral. It replaced the story that already existed in the song with one that already existed elsewhere — in the ideas of race and gender that they took with them into the recording session. In doing so, they took the high regard for motherhood actually expressed in the song and turned it almost exactly up-side down.


Part 1   Part 2   Part 3   Part 4   Part 5   Part 6   Part 7   Part 8