Beliefnet

We all go to different churches or no churches, we have different favorite foods, different ways of making love, different ways of doing all sorts of things, but there we’re all singing together. Gives you hope.

What is your definition of God?

I tell people I don’t think God is an old white man with a long white beard and no navel; nor do I think God is an old black woman with white hair and no navel. But I think God is literally everything, because I don’t believe that something can come out of nothing. And so there’s always been something. Always is a long time.

This would be my argument with most religious people. They think of God as being mainly concerned with what goes on in our Earth. God has got many things to think about.

What do you say to religious people?

On Religious Tolerance
I’m urging all religions to at least tolerate talking with each other, even though it’s hard to speak without getting angry because they feel that some beliefs are so bad, others’ beliefs. But I think one of the saving things of the world would be getting people to be willing to talk to each other, even though they think they are representing the devil incarnate.

And I talk to religious people whenever I can, I say, “When you come to a curb at the edge of a street and do you look up in the sky and say, ‘God please save me. It’s dangerous crossing the street, I trust that you’ll save me.’ No, you don’t do that, you look to the left, you look to the right, you use the brains God gave you, and if there’s no car coming, you cross.

Do you have a favorite spiritual song or music?

Being Changed By Civil Rights
I was deeply, deeply changed by the civil rights movement. I’d always liked what they called Negro spirituals and I sang ‘em for the fun of it, “Swing Low Sweet Chariot,” or “Didn’t My Lord Deliver Daniel,” or “Joshua Fought the Battle of Jericho.”

I’ve often felt that some of these songs may have gotten European melodies, but all of them have African treatment. For example, it might have been a slave looking through the window oat a dance in the big white house, and the fiddler is playing “The Irish Washerwoman” on the fiddle [sings tune]. Out in the cotton fields the next day the slave is in the field is singing “Rock-a my soul in the bosom of Abraham, rock-a my soul in the bosom of Abraham.” Obviously just a slowed down different rhythm, but it was basically “The Irish Washerwoman” tune.

However, other tunes are African. Allan Lomax [the folk music ethnologist] taught me some work songs sung by black prisoners in Southern chain gangs, and I heard on a tape recording when they invented tape, around 1950, a professor come back from West Africa with the exact same tune for a song which I’d learned with English words. The song I knew [sings], “He’s long John, he’s long John, he’s long gone, he’s long gone, like a turkey through the corn, like a turkey through the corn, with his long clothes on, with his long clothes on. He’s long John, long gone.” And so on. And that exact same melody was being sung with African words. So there’s a lot more African in American music than most Americans realize.

What’s the origin of “We Shall Overcome,” the hymn of the civil rights movement, which you popularized?  

Nobody knows exactly who wrote the original. The original was faster. [Sings] “I’ll be alright, I’ll be alright, I’ll be alright, someday….deep in my heart I do not weep, I’ll be alright someday.” Or “deep in my heart I do believe.” And other verses are “I’ll wear the crown, I’ll wear the crown,” and “I’ll be like Him, I’ll be like Him” or “I’ll overcome, I’ll overcome.”

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