Thursday, October 7, 2010

"Mean Old World" - Heavenly Gospel Singers


Set Four: The "Lost" Volume; Disc One; Track Fourteen: "Mean Old World" performed by Heavenly Gospel Singers. Recorded in Atlanta on August 7, 1935.

The Heavenly Gospel Singers originally hailed from Spartanburg, South Carolina, but they first came together in Detroit, Michigan during the 1920s when tenor Fred Whitmore first organized a group of friends into a singing group called the Masonic Glee Club. They gradually grew in popularity, securing gigs as far away as Chicago. At some point, the group changed their name to the Heavenly Gospel Singers. By 1930, however, most of the original group was gone, leaving only Whitmore. In addition, the group consisted of lead singer Roosevelt Fenroy, baritone Henderson Massey, and bass Jimmy Bryant. The group was signed to Bluebird and, on August 7, 1935, made their first recordings. They recorded ten sides at their first session in Atlanta, Georgia, including this recording of "Mean Old World." They recorded a further ten songs at a second session in 1936.

By this point, the group was a successful recording and performing unit. The unexpected death of founder Fred Whitmore, however, put their future in jeopardy. Deciding to carry on with Arthur Lee "Bob" Beatty in Whitmore's place, the group made their most significant recording in February, 1937 when they became the first gospel quartet to record Thomas Dorsey's "Take My Hand Precious Lord."

In 1938, the group began to fragment. Dissent within the group caused bass singer Jimmy Bryant (arguably one of the most influential bass vocalists in the history of American music) to quit. He was replaced by William Bobo, who was also to become a legendary vocalist in his own right. Both Bryant and Bobo were to become, at different times, members of the seminal gospel group, the Dixie Hummingbirds.

Eventually, the Heavenly Gospel Singers were reduced to Henderson Massey and shifting group of sidemen. They made their last recordings for Bluebird in 1941. By the end of World War II, the group had drifted into obscurity. A postwar group recorded under the name the Heavenly Gospel Singers, but this group was from Alabama and contained no members of the original group whatsoever.

The Heavenly Gospel Singers, with the prominent bass of Jimmy Bryant, were highly influential. Their style would inspire the Golden Gate Quartet and other groups, eventually influencing the first generation of Doo-Wop groups that emerged during the 1950s.

Biographical information, especially birth and death dates, for the individual members of the group appears to be unavailable at this time.

"Mean Old World" is a simple song that repeatedly points out the troubles of this mortal coil.

This is a mean,
This is a mean old world,
You try to live in,
You try to stay in,
Until you die.

Without a mother,
Without a father,
Without a sister,
Lord, you ain't got no brother.

This is a mean old world
You try to live in
Until you die.

You got to walk,
You got to walk sometimes.
You try to live in,
You try to stay in,
Until you die.

Without a mother,
Without a father,
Without a sister,
Lord, you ain't got no brother.

This is a mean old world
You try to live in
Until you die.

You got to pray,
You got to pray sometimes.
You try to live in,
You try to stay in,
Until you die.

Without a mother,
Without a father,
Without a sister,
Lord, you ain't got no brother.

This is a mean old world
You try to live in
Until you die.

You got to pray,
You got to pray sometimes.
You try to live in,
You try to stay in,
Until you die.

Without a mother,
Without a father,
Without a sister,
Lord, you ain't got no brother.

This is a mean old world
You try to live in
Until you die.

This is a mean,
This is a mean old world,
You try to live in,
You try to stay in,
Until you die.

Ain't got no mother,
Ain't got no father,
Ain't got no sister,
Lord, don't pray no brother.

This is a mean old world
You try to live in
Until you die.


It is tempting to imagine that Smith chose "Mean Old World" because of its fatalistic message. While the song repeatedly states that "this is a mean old world...you try to live in...until you die," the song does not offer any comfort. While prayer is mentioned, there is no mention of God or of a personal savior. There is no promise of eternal salvation, nor even the threat of damnation. The song simply drums home the fact that life sucks and then you die. A cheerful note on which to end the first disc of this volume.

It has long been a theme of Christianity that the material world is one of hardship and suffering, but there is usually the promise of something better after death. The salvation not explicitly mentioned in this song may have been assumed on the part of the song's writer, and so it was not deemed necessary to state outright that death brings relief from the sufferings of earthly existence. The song might have been intended as a momento mori, a simple reminder that we are all mortal and must eventually pass from the earth.

"Mean Old World" follows five blues recordings in a row, and may have been intended to augment the theme of hard times that often accompany blues recordings, or to offer a different take on "the blues."

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This is a video of gospel singer Marion Williams performing a song called "Mean Old World" which probably has nothing to do with the song sung by the Heavenly Gospel Singers. However, it's interesting to compare this example of post-war gospel singing with the rawer pre-war spirituals...



Download and listen to the Heavenly Gospel Singers - "Mean Old World"

3 comments:

  1. Nice blog,alot of good information.

    ReplyDelete
  2. This song always makes me cry, something about the layering of all the voices, so solemn but maintaining strength spite of a lot of pain. I wish more young American men were capable of accessing these feelings today. I guess life is easier now. Funny, you posted this on my birthday.

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  3. Are any of the songs available by the Heavenly gospel singers ? The lyrics are very relevant and inspiring and I would really like to hear them in the gospel song.

    ReplyDelete