The Best Songs: Sometimes I feel like a motherless child

The Negro spiritual, Motherless Child Blues is a Negro Spiritual that turned into “Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child” (or simply “Motherless Child”) .

The song dates back to the era of slavery in the United States when it was common practice to sell children of slaves away from their parents. An early performance of the song dates back as far as the 1870s by the Fisk Jubilee Singers. Like many traditional songs, it has many variations and has been recorded many times.

The song is clearly an expression of pain and despair as it conveys the hopelessness of a child who has been torn from his or her parents. Under one interpretation, the repetitive singing of the word “sometimes” offers a measure of hope, as it suggests that at least “sometimes” I do not feel like a motherless child.

Although the plaintive words can be interpreted literally, they were much more likely metaphoric. The “motherless child” could be a slave separated from and yearning for his African homeland, a slave suffering “a long ways from home”—home being heaven—or most likely both. (- wikipedia)

It is difficult to pick just a few versions because there are so many really good ones!

We will start with the blues/gospel/jazz roots.

Paul Robeson (actor/singer/athlete) son of a slave, gave this fantastic version to the world in the 1930s (a lot should be said about Paul Robeson but that will be another story):

Odetta, the famous gospel singer, recorded a version live at Carnegie Hall in 1960. Pasolini used it in his Jeusus film, The Gospel According to St. Matthew. It lifts this scene to new heights and it is one of my favourite scenes in cinema history:

I will choose one more of the old releases, and it will be Louis Armstrong’s magnificent interpretation from 1958. He plays beautifully through the whole song first, giving it a bluesy, sad feeling, then he really hits home with a very good vocal performance. He was a very good singer!

Then there’s a shift, drums and bass are introduced to the song, we get many interesting takes.

Lou Rawls sings a jazzy R&B version (1962), great version:

Kathleen Emery does a great and funky interpretation (1970).Emery’s version (along with Van Morrison’s release), is my favourite interpretation of the song. It is just so down and dirty, the shift 1 minute into the song is so good:

Last I will present my first experience with this song, and still one of my prefered versions, Van Morrison. He released it on his great record, Poetics, Champions Compose in 1987. His voice reeks of pain and suffering, and he made me seek out all the other versions of the song:

– Hallgeir