13 April, 2010

"John The Baptist" - Rev. Moses Mason

Set Two: Social Music; Disc Two; Track Nine: "John the Baptist" performed by Rev. Moses Mason. "(Singing sermon) Vocal solo with guitar." Recorded in Chicago in January 1928. Original issue Paramount 12702A (20290-2).

Rev. Moses Mason was reportedly from Lake Providence, Louisiana, although no birth date is available. Whether or not Mason was actually ordained is unknown (however, I kind of doubt it). His life is a complete mystery, other than the fact that he recorded eight songs for Paramount Records in 1928 in a Chicago studio. Whether or not he came to Chicago specifically to record is unknown. Among the songs recorded at this session was this version of "John The Baptist." In addition to the sacred songs released as Rev. Moses Mason, he also released a few secular pieces, "Shrimp Man" and "Molly Man" among them, which were released under the name Red Hot Ole Mose (and can be heard on the excellent American Primitive Vol. 2 on Revenant). Mason appears never to have recorded again. His death date is unknown.

According to Jeff Place's notes to the 1997 reissue of the Anthology, "John The Baptist" "reflect[s] the importance of Reconstruction hymnody in shaping the repertoire of Black American Protestants in the 20th century." However, I have been unable to find any further information along these lines. If anybody knows more about this song and its origins, please contact me at wheredeadvoicesgather1@gmail.com or leave a comment below.

John done saw that number,
Way in the middle of the air.
John done saw that number,
Way in the middle of the air.

Inculcating John The Baptist,
Preaching in the wilderness
All the children came from east
Came from the east,
For the kingdom of heaven
It ain't for this is he
That was spoken of by the prophecy, yeah.
The voice of one
Crying in the wilderness so badly.
Stayed away all day Lord,
It made him sadly stayed insane.
John had a raiment of camel hide
and a leather girdle, not his own.

John done saw that number,
Way in the middle of the air.
John done saw that number,
Way in the middle of the air.
Crying "holy, holy, holy my Lord God, holy!"

Jesus came from Nazarene unto Galilee
To be baptized of John in Jordan.
And John said unto Him, "Come and talk to me,
I need to be baptized of Thee."
And Jesus said unto John, "Suffer it to be so for
Thus it becomes us to fill all righteousness."

John done saw that number,
Way in the middle of the air.
John done saw that number,
Way in the middle of the air.
Crying "How long, how long,
How long my Lord, oh how long."

After Jesus was baptized of John,
Straightaway out of the waters,
Looked and saw heavens open.
And the spirit of God came down and lit a bow on Him.
And Jesus was carried up into the mountain
To be tempted, all-forsaken.
And when he had fasted forty days and forty nights,
The tempters came unto him and said,
"If Thou be the Son of God, cast thy weight
'Cause he's going to be a burden."

Jesus said unto John
"Get behind me, for it is written
Thou shall not tempt the Lord thy God
But him only thou should obey."

John done saw that number,
Way in the middle of the air.
John done saw that number,
Way in the middle of the air.

John the Baptist is an important figure in Christianity. He is regarded as a forerunner of Christ, whose coming John foretold. In some accounts, such as the Gospel of Luke, John is a direct relative of Christ's (his mother being Mary's sister). John is regarded as a prophet in Christianity, Islam, the Bahá'í Faith, and Mandaeism. John baptized Christ (an event recounted in this song), an act linked to the Jewish ritual cleansing or mikveh. John's practice of baptizing his followers in "living" or running water is the source of his title "the Baptist" (helping to distinguish him from several other "Johns" who appear in the New Testament). John was martyred and put to death by Herodias (a story related in the Gospel of Matthew, as well as in Oscar Wilde's play "Salome"). John's head is believed by some to have been kept and worshiped by the Knights Templar and is allegedly on display at the Residenz museum in Munich, Germany. Apart from this song, I can find no instance of John the Baptist seeing a "number way in the middle of the air."

An extremely rough recording, full of spiritual fire, Rev. Moses Mason's recording is technically a "sung sermon." Apart from the chorus, which is sung, most of the non-rhyming verses are chanted. In this song, Mason recounts not only the baptism of Christ, but also Christ's Temptation in the Wilderness. Although John is not present during Christ's temptation, Mason puts the Baptist there and even has Jesus address the words "get behind me" to John rather than Satan. What this indicates, apart from simple confusion on Mason's part, is unclear. In his notes, Smith points out that the non-rhyming verses are common to performances of this song by other artists. Smith also notes that the lyric "way in the middle of the air" also appears in songs about Ezekiel and the Wheel, and may well have been imported from one of those songs into this one. It does draw a parallel, however, between Ezekiel (an Old Testament prophet) and John the Baptist, although John's Old Testament equivalent is really Elijah (whose return is supposed to signal the coming of the Messiah, just as John foretold the coming of Christ).

"John The Baptist" is the first of four "song sermons" in a row.

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Here's a snippet of singer-songwriter Neko Case performing her version of "John The Baptist" in concert. It's short and the quality isn't great, but it's quite well done.

Download and listen to Rev. Moses Mason - "John The Baptist"


  1. Hi! First of all I want to to say that I really admire the passion that you have put into this blog entry. Unfortunately, as an ethnomusicologist, I also have to say that your transcription of the lyrics is COMPLETELY WRONG!
    If you care enough to change that I've added the correct lyrics to this video.



  2. I wonder if the song is merging two different Johns (or even if the folk process has merged two originally unrelated songs). The refrain seems more applicable to John of the Book of Revelation, who saw animal-headed angels similar to those seen by Ezekiel and who did in fact say "Holy, holy, holy!" But the verses clearly relate to the John the Baptist.