Singing along with this in a school hall at the age of 4 or 5 is one of my earliest memories, but back then the lyric confused me. Interpreting the lyric literally, I remember asking a teacher: “Who´s got the whole world in his hands?” and she replied: “The pope!” Cue a double dose of confusion…
Recently, a friend informed me that when the pope made his 1979 visit to Ireland, this song was in wide circulation on the radio stations, and was the unofficial anthem for the pope at the time. Anyway, that didn´t help a four year old me, who had been present at the pope´s visit, to understand what the hell the song was about any better. All it did was give me renewed admiration for the papal one. What a guy this pope must be! I couldn´t understand how he could do something like that, but however he did it, it was impressive.
The version I´ve chosen is from Nina Simone, And Her Friends (1959). In my opinion, no one even comes close to Nina singing it.
He´s got the Whole World in His Hands is a traditional American spiritual, which was first published in 1927 in the paperbound hymnal Spirituals Triumphant Old & New.
In 1933 Sue Thomas was recorded singing it by Frank Warner for his collection. It was also archived by other collectors such as Robert Sonkin of the Library of Congress, who recorded it in Gee´s Bend, Alabama in 1941.
Frank Warner performed it during the 1940´s and ´50´s and introduced it to the American folk scene, and his recording of it is on the Elektra Album American Folk Songs and Ballads in 1952. It was subsequently picked up by both American gospel singers and British skiffle and pop musicians. A version by English singer Laurie London with the Geoff Love Orchestra was the first gospel song to hit number 1 on the U.S. Pop Singles chart in 1958. A gospel song wouldn´t reach the top of the charts again until 1969 when Oh Happy Day, by the Edwin Hawkins Singers, got to number 1 on the Billboard Top 40 Singles Chart.
Time for a little detour…
The field recordings of Frank Warner had an enormous impact on the folk revival scene. During the 1930´s, and the Depression, Anne and Frank began travelling the Eastern Seaboard on weekends and vacations collecting folk songs. They had full time jobs and not much money to spare, but what they had they spent on collecting music. The Warners spread traditional music as performers travelling around the United States and other countries. They carefully credited all the musicians they recorded and worked relentlessly to promote regional singers.
“With the Warners it was always people first, music second”
Here´s a great little introduction to the impact their collection had with old photographs of some of the people they recorded.
Another of the great collectors of folk music, Alan Lomax, said of the Warners There´s was a “… continuous act of unpaid devotion to the American folksong and a lifelong love affair with the people who remembered the ballads.”
They went back as often as they could revisiting their friends. One of those friends was Frank Proffitt who began collecting songs himself and playing them for the Warners. He played them 120 songs, but just one of those, a recording of a song called Tom Dooley, became an unlikely hit, and the spark that lit the fire for the folk music movement. Here´s Pete Seeger and Frank Warner himself playing it together.
“Frank Warner came and in him I saw an educated person who made me feel like somebody and I opened my heart to him. I told him of my people, and he and Anne didn´t seem to notice that we were poor and didn´t know big words.” Frank Proffitt
I´m planning to return to their collection in a later SOTW when I´ll talk about Leadbelly (Huddie William Ledbetter) who Warner met while Huddie was in prison, but that story´s for another day.
After Frank and Anne had retired, they began to write about the music and the people they´d met. Frank died in 1978, but Anne went on to finish and publish Traditional American Folk Songs, an autobiographical book full of stories and songs from their journeys.
Tune in next week for something completely different…