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.”

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.

7 thoughts on “Old Black Joe

    1. Treva

      I loved Stephen Fosters work. His songs just fill my soul. I have been singing them for over 60 years thanks to a sweet music teacher who introduced me to them when I was in 4 th grade. I
      Love old black joe have been singing it all

  1. Marlene

    I am 60 now and remember singing poor old joe at school when i was 10 and it used to make me cry because the music and words were sad i cannot remember the words black joe being there though its stayed with me for 50 plus years dont no if it is classed as racist now i have never heard it since school i like some other of his songs. 3rd feb 2021

    1. Dougie b

      I have come across an old text book for learning music from our old country school likely 1920s or so. Couldn’t remember the music so played it .set in b flat. Very beautiful lyrics also. Stuck in my head now . Should I sing this aloud. Shall substitute for the words black and cotton . A feared to be called a horrible name .


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s