It’s not too late to just decide that, even though he’s singing the wrong words, yes, I said it, the wrong words. It goes “Children, go where I send thee/ How shall I send thee?” Who has ever heard of a song, a religious song, where the leader says something and the respondents back-talk him? “Where you gonna send me?” Please. You have been given an order, Tennessee-Ernie-Ford Back-talkers. Go where he sends thee. Don’t sass the man.
Plus, it makes no sense for the rest of the song. He’s not sending them to two-by-two, that’s how he’s sending them out.
But I believe Ford to be a reasonable man. So, once we dig him up and reanimate him, I think he will be persuaded by my reasoning. Which brings me back to the first seven words of this post.
It’s not too late to just decide that Tennessee Ernie Ford has the perfect voice for singing this song and that, if you can’t reasonably reproduce the essence of this performance, you just shouldn’t bother. I invite you to go to youtube and view the videos of people singing this song and tell me if you don’t agree. This song works best when it feels like an invocation, when the singer has either a strong enough voice–like Ford–or a voice like a serrated porcupine quill–like Ralph Stanley–to get the attention of Heaven and earth.
I’m sorry Natalie Merchant. You have a lovely voice, but the children cannot hear you over the video game they’re playing in the other room. And multiple choirs who perform this with some kind of backing track? Hang up your robes, you frauds. This is a song that begs for minimal accompaniment.
Ha ha ha.
Yes, okay, clearly, I’m a little stressed about the holidays since I’m talking smack about people singing Christmas carols (though it’s interesting to note that both Ford and Cash seem kind of unsure if this even is a Christmas carol).
But I think it’s interesting to consider why this song works, when it works, and, like I said, I think it’s because it works as an invocation. You have this loud strong “Chiiiiillld-ren, GOOOOooooo Where I Send THEeeee” and it’s worth noting that one of the reasons this works as a call to action or worship is that we’re so used to the iamb–da dum da dum da dum da dum da dum (Think of “This shit is bananas, B-a-n-a-n-a-s” for a good example of iambic feet) that when we hear trochaic feet, we pay attention. It literally sounds strange.
And when you’re trying to invoke the strange–the sacred–to perform the strange is an incredibly powerful way to shift the energy in a space. Especially when we’re talking song here, not just poetry so that some of the unstressed syllables aren’t just unstressed. They are literally not there. After “thee” there’s no unstressed syllable, for instance. You just wait for the next line to start.
And then, there’s the building repetitiveness of the verses, which is a great way to, again, allow your listener (or singer-along) to shift headspace. It kind of has a chugging monotonous quality that lets you sing along with almost the whole song the first time you hear it.
I don’t know. I thought I had maybe more intelligent things to say about it. These books on Spiritualism and Old-timey Methodism have got me thinking a lot about the role of music in worship and about how these old hymns and spirituals were designed for specific mood-altering work, to help the worshipper get in a mind-altered state.
I want to think about that some.