The Black church standard, “O Mary Don’t You Weep,” undoubtedly began before the Civil War as a “slave song.” It would have been sung without instruments, possibly at secret church gatherings at a time when Southern slave owners were trying to control Christianity among Blacks. They wanted to emphasize only those Biblical passages that pushed obedience. And in the tales it cites, “Mary” has a coded message against oppression, a longing for justice.
The freedom (even the call) for a preacher or singer to improvise about current events has been a hallmark of Black church music. And there seems to be no record of “Mary” being written down in the 19th century. So the lyrics have changed many times. But the song essentially derives from three Biblical stories: the sisters Mary and Martha being consoled by Jesus because he’s raised their brother Lazarus from the dead; the flight from Egypt with Moses causing the Red Sea to destroy Pharaoh’s army and – not in all versions – God’s promise to Noah after the Flood.
The three stories are completely unrelated in the Bible, but as lyrics, they overlap to great emotional effect, particularly for an enslaved or downtrodden congregation. They provide advice (don’t despair), hope for the future (God will help) and a promise of justice (“the fire next time”).
Music artists have taken these different sentiments and stressed either the sorrowful compassion of the song (please don’t cry) or its solace and joy (we will be free). Along the way — over nearly a century — “Mary” morphed from its spiritual origins through gospel, doo-wop and r&b to folk protest and even New Orleans funk.
Fisk Jubilee Singers: O Mary, Don’t You Weep, Don’t You Mourn – 1915
The first known, recorded version – without it, we might have lost the song. The original Fisk Jubilee Singers were the most successful Black vocal group of the 19th century. The song’s story about escaping Pharaoh is here, with its implied meaning of salvation from oppression. But Pharaoh is expressly linked to Satan, making it less directed at slave owners or Jim Crow. Given its brisk pace and barbershop-quartet-like harmonies, the performance is crisp and sprightly. The Fisk ensemble fulfills what Henry Louis Gates (in the PBS documentary The Black Church: This is Our Story, This is Our Song) sees as their role at the time. They preserved, codified and conventionalized African-influenced slave songs for popular (white) consumption.
“Georgia Field Hands”: Mary Don’t You Weep – 1929
This version was made more than a decade after the Fisk recording – it’s from a Depression-era newsreel – but its simplicity may be closer to how the song originally sounded, albeit accompanied here by a banjo. This time, the song contains added mini-sermons – somewhat light-hearted warnings against shooting dice and committing adultery (“can’t get to heaven with a sweetheart and a wife”).
The Caravans: Mary Don’t You Weep – 1958 (released)
This all-star, reunion line-up in 1988 of the popular, long-running singing group demonstrates how the spiritual had been fully remodeled into a gospel rave-up. The Caravans’ membership changed over time but remained primarily a female ensemble. Performing here are Inez Andrews, Shirley Caesar, Albertina Walker and Delores Washington — with James Cleveland on piano. They follow what had become the traditional path, starting stately and deliberate then taking off when Andrews cuts loose. It’s a familiar gospel set-up, but it shows how far “Mary” has come, now less a choral chant and more a chance for a soloist to catch the spirit and tear the roof off.
The Swan Silvertones: Oh Mary Don’t You Weep – 1959
A silky-smooth doo-wop interpretation with great compassion and tremendous singing from lead tenor Claude Jeter. The song inspired Paul Simon’s “Bridge Over Troubled Water” (Simon’s title comes from Jeter’s interpolated lyrics). This version makes the identification of Pharoah with white resistance to the civil rights movement more explicit (“Trouble in the land will be all over after a while . . . You won’t have to give up right for wrong no more”). In 2005, this recording of “Mary” was added to the Library of Congress’ National Recording Registry.
The Soul Stirrers with Sam Cooke: Oh Mary Don’t You Weep – 1961
Another upbeat cover that surprisingly makes “Mary” almost a calypso song. The lyrics flesh out their Biblical origins and offer a more detailed narrative about “people in bondage who just wanted to flee” and Moses telling the king to “let my people go.” The song has become a more overtly hopeful message about the struggle against racial injustice. Sam Cooke, inspired by Bob Dylan’s “Blowin’ in the Wind,” would later write “A Change Is Gonna Come.“
Pete Seeger: O Mary Don’t You Weep – 1965 (from the TV show, Rainbow Quest)
“Mary” openly becomes a protest song. Singer-activist Pete Seeger joins Appalachian legend Jean Ritchie and civil rights vocalist Bernice Johnson Reagon (later with Sweet Honey in the Rock). Seeger amplifies the line about Pharaoh’s army, saying, “Right now, some of these pharaohs might get drownded, too.” It’s a possible reference not just to Southern segregationists but to President Johnson and the Vietnam War. This is also the first version included here to feature the original lyric “God gave Noah the rainbow sign / No more water, but the fire next time.” It’s the song’s third Biblical narrative and had inspired the title of James Baldwin’s galvanizing book about American race relations published two years before, The Fire Next Time.
Aretha Franklin: Mary Don’t You Weep – 1972 (from her album, Amazing Grace)
The Queen of Soul returns to her roots with James Cleveland and the Southern California Community Choir. One of the pinnacles of the classic, massed gospel choir behind an inspired soloist who launches into a bravura display of restraint and exultation. For a song about not weeping, this “Mary” moves solemnly, like a chugging train, but Franklin’s singing is anything but: She details Mary and Lazarus’ story like a preacher on a roll. In 1972, Amazing Grace won the Grammy for best soul gospel performance. Franklin later delivered a simpler, abbreviated, piano version on Soul Train. It may well have offered inspiration for Prince’s solo below.
Prince: Mary Don’t You Weep – recorded 1983 (released 2018 on the album Piano & A Microphone 1983)
As one might expect, Prince’s raw, improvised solo performance is a complete break with tradition. He strips the Biblical context from the song, removing both its religious and civil rights connotations – except for the single line, “Mary, don’t you weep, Martha, don’t you moan.” Prince is hardly the first to ‘secularize’ the song: James Brown did it in 1964 with “Oh Baby Don’t You Weep.” But Prince spins that single lyric into a wrenching lament about a physical loss, a romantic/sexual breakup. The spiritual gets turned inward, into a different kind of ‘sorrow song.’ “Mama, your man done gone,” Prince moans, almost to himself. “And I got a bad, bad feeling he ain’t coming home.”
Take 6: Mary — recorded 1988 (released on the group’s debut album, Take)
An exuberant, jazzy a cappella version, this “Mary” emphasizes the joy in the song, leaving out the threat of the “fire next time.” You might even miss Pharoah’s army drowning because, led by Claude V. McKnight III’s soaring tenor, so much of the song is devoted to exhorting Mary and Martha to hop to it and celebrate. The doo-wop harmonies and rhythms of a version like the Swan Silvertones’ get more propulsion here, plus a lot of reverb and a larger, stronger backup chorus (five singers vs. four). Take 6 becomes almost a wall of sound. The album won the 1988 Grammy for best soul gospel performance.
Bruce Springsteen: O Mary Don’t You Weep – 2006 (released on We Shall Overcome: The Pete Seeger Sessions. This is the Live in Dublin version.)
For the album, We Shall Overcome, Bruce Springsteen re-invigorated 13 folk songs and spirituals that Pete Seeger had helped popularize. Springsteen used an expanded orchestra and chorus to lend the number more rock ‘n’ roll stomp and swagger. The results turn “Mary” into a raucous, joyous powerhouse that even incorporates klezmer fiddle, accordion and brassy New Orleans funk. Here, the lyric, “One of these nights ‘bout twelve o’clock / this old world is gonna rock,” seems especially apt.