Old Black Joe

by Stephen C. FosterOldBlackJoe

Gone are the days when my heart was young and gay,
Gone are my friends from the cotton fields away;
Gone from the earth to a better land, I know,
I hear their gentle voices calling, “Old Black Joe.”

Chorus:
I’m coming, I’m coming, for my head is bending low;
I hear those gentle voices calling “Old Black Joe.”

Why do I weep when my heart should feel no pain?
Why do I sigh that my friends come not again?
Grieving for forms now departed long ago,
I hear their gentle voices calling, “Old Black Joe.”

Where are the hearts once so happy and so free?
The children so dear that I held upon my knee?
Gone to the shore where my soul has longed to go,
I hear their gentle voices calling, “Old Black Joe.”

(Click here for a PDF version of the sheet music) * (Click here to hear an instrumental MP3)

The first major American popular songwriter, S...

Stephen C. Foster. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Stephen C. Foster was the greatest American songwriter to his time. From about 1848 to 1855, his works were on everyone’s lips, and his songs were consistent hits. Songs like “Oh, Susanna,” “Camptown Races,” “My Old Kentucky Home,” and “Old Folks at Home” were found in every piano bench, and are still remembered today.

But, by 1860, Foster — who was certainly an alcoholic, probably depressive, and very likely autistic — was burned out. He had tried to go “respectable,” and it had failed; people wanted his plantation songs. And his creativity had been drowned in liquor, and he had no ability to manage his finances or his life.

There was to be one more hit. “Old Black Joe” sounds like a plantation song, and it has been treated as one — but Foster wrote it in proper English, not dialect. There is no direct reference to slavery, either; if Joe weren’t Black, he might be anyone. In any case, it is a dignified song with a truly brilliant Foster melody.

"Old Black Joe" song by Stephen C. F...

1860 cover of “Old Black Joe” by Stephen C. Foster. Photo credit: Wikipedia

And so it endured, at a time when Foster was desperately cranking out forgotten trash like “Parthenia to Ingomar” and “Lizzie Dies To-Night”  and “Merry Little Birds Are We.” Even “Beautiful Dreamer,” now considered a classic, languished on the shelf because, by 1862, publishers weren’t confident that any additional Foster songs would sell. “Old Black Joe” was the last true hit of Foster’s career.

Source: The text is M. C. Dean’s, and is very close to Foster’s original. The tune is taken from the original sheet music, with a little bit of fiddling with the timing (folk songs don’t have sixteenth notes…); also, I transposed it from D (too high for most people today) to A.

This is not quite the way I learned the song. The first half is the same, but I have heard the chorus done much more slowly — eight measures instead of four. The notes are the same, but the timing is different. I thought about transcribing that version, but since we don’t know what Dean sang, it’s perhaps best to go with Foster’s original.

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