Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child

African American spiritual, early 1800s

What is the overall mood of this song? What aspects of the song—both its lyric and tune—convey this feeling? What words would you use to describe the feeling? Mournful, lament, alienated, lonely, abandoned, forlorn, forsaken, grieving, sorrowful, etc.

When enslaved African Americans before the Civil War were singing this song, why do you think they felt like motherless children? Did they mean this literally, figuratively, or both? Where was "home"?

Why do you think the song switches from talking about being a long way from home to talking about Judgement Day?

Why do you think this song has stood the test of time and is still sung today by many singers? What parts of its message are timeless?

Can you identify with this song? Have you ever felt the way the singer of this song feels? What kinds of situations make you feel like a "motherless child" "a long way from home"?

If you've heard this song before, what other verses have you heard? "Sometimes I feel like an eagle in the air." Make up new verses to the song using the same pattern to reflect some of the wide range of feelings that you've felt when you are down, then start to feel hopeful again.


"Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child" performed by Odetta on Odetta: The Best of the Vanguard Years, Vanguard Records [79522-2], © 1999. Available on iTunes, Spotify, and YouTube.

Odetta, the performer on the recommended recording, is often called the "female Leadbelly," noted for blues, folk, and American roots recordings. She sings this spiritual as it would have been initially, without accompaniment but with slight embellishment in the melodic line in response to her emotions.

View the music and lyrics for "Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child."

View the original publication in Old Plantation Hymns.

As with most African American spirituals, the origins of this song are difficult to establish. The first citation of this song appears in Old Plantation Hymns by William Barton (1861–1930). From 1880 to 1887 he lived in the South, where he witnessed enslaved people singing spirituals, “Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child” in particular. Eventually he wrote the melody and words down, yet the song has survived primarily through oral tradition.

Like many other African American spirituals, this song conveys the sadness that many enslaved people felt at being such a “long way from home,” both in the sense of being far away from their native Africa and in the sense of being forcibly separated from family and friends. It can also be interpreted as a longing for death, that other Home, which many slaves saw as their only escape.

The Old Plantation, artist unknown, ca. 1777-1794.

The Old Plantation, artist unknown, ca. 1777–1794.

 

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