An in-depth examination of the music of the 78 era.
25 April, 2010
"Little Moses" - The Carter Family
Set Two: Social Music; Disc Two; Track Twelve: "Little Moses" performed by The Carter Family. "Vocal trio with autoharp, guitar." Recorded in Camden, New Jersey on February 14, 1929. Original issue Victor 23641B.
With this appearance on the "Social Music" volume, the Carter Family becomes the only artists to appear on all four volumes of the Anthology.
"Little Moses" is a simple narrative song (a "religious ballad," in the words of Alan Lomax) that retells several events in the life of Moses, arguably the most important prophet in the Old Testament.
Away by the river so clear, The ladies were winding their way, And Pharaoh's little daughter stepped down in the water To bathe in the cool of the day.
Before it was dark she opened the ark And found the sweet infant was there. Before it was dark she opened the ark And found the sweet infant was there.
And away by the waters so blue, The infant was lonely and sad. She took him in pity and thought him so pretty And it made little Moses so glad.
She called him her own, her beautiful son, And sent for a nurse that was near. She called him her own, her beautiful son, And sent for a nurse that was near.
And away by the river so clear, They carried the beautiful child, To his own tender mother, his sister and brother, Little Moses looked happy and smiled.
His mother so good done all that she could To rear him and teach him with care. His mother so good done all that she could To rear him and teach him with care.
And away by the sea that was red. Little Moses the servant of God. While in Him confided, the sea was divided, As upward he lifted his rod.
The Jews safely crossed while Pharaoh's host Was drownded in the waters and lost. The Jews safely crossed while Pharaoh's host Was drownded in the waters and lost.
And away on the mountain so high, The last one that ever might see, While in his victorious, his hope was most glorious He'd soon o'er the Jordan be free.
When his labor did cease, he departed in peace And rested in the Heavens above. When his labor did cease, he departed in peace And rested in the Heavens above.
The story of Moses is related in the Old Testament books of Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy, and has also been retold numerous times in popular culture (perhaps most famously in Cecil B. DeMille's film The Ten Commandments starring Charlton Heston). Moses has been depicted by artists throughout history, including Michelangelo, William Turner, Giotto di Bondone, Gustave Doré, and countless others. His likeness has appeared in paint, marble, stained glass, wood, and bronze, among many other mediums. Images of Moses appear in the Library of Congress, the Supreme Court, and the U.S. House of Representatives. Arguably the most important prophet in Judaism, Moses is also venerated by Christians - who hold him as the embodiment of God's law - and by Muslims. Moses is mentioned 502 times in the Koran, more than Noah, Jesus and Abraham, and is often described in ways that parallel the prophet Mohammad. The story of Moses was also central to African American slaves. The song "Go Down Moses" was one of the most popular Negro spirituals. Moses was famously invoked by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. when he declared that he had "been to the mountaintop."
The song "Little Moses" focuses primarily on the early life of Moses, particularly the story of his being set adrift in the Nile and found among the reeds and rushes by Pharaoh's daughter, Thermuthis, although the song then skips a good deal and goes straight to the crossing of the Red Sea (an event central to the Jewish festival of Passover) and Moses's ascension of Mt. Sinai.
Unlike most of the the other songs on the religious section of "Social Music," "Little Moses" makes no promises. It is a simple Sunday school lesson.
"Little Moses" is the third song in a row to mention Moses.
In his notes, Smith talks exclusively about the Carter Family and their history and makes no mention of the song whatsoever. This is unusual to say the least. Smith usually focused on the songs in his notes and rarely mentioned that artists. That he chose to devote a passage to them indicates the high esteem in which he held the Carter Family.
Between the Carter's last appearance on the "Ballads" volume (where Sara Carter was the only women to sing lead vocals) and "Little Moses," there have been three other songs prominently featuring female voices ("Judgement,""He Got Better Things For You," and "Since I Laid My Burden Down"). The religious disc features more female vocalists than any other part of the Anthology, which raises the question of why this should be. It certainly might be that more men were professional musicians during this period, or that women were more active in religious singing than in secular singing. This might also simply reflect a bias on the part of the record companies of the period, or even on the part of Smith himself. We know that there were women recording during the '20s and '30s (Ma Rainey, Bessie Smith, Geeshie Wiley and Elvie Thomas, just to name a few). Why did Smith choose not to include their music?
"Little Moses" is the last of four "song-sermons" in a row.
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Here is Italian guitarist and singer Giuseppe Gazerro performing a live version of "Little Moses."
Here's Bob Dylan performing "Little Moses" in 1992 in Binghamton, New York. The camera is shaky, but the sound is excellent.
Here's Raymond Crooke performing a gentle version of "Little Moses."