Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child
"Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child" (or simply "Motherless Child") is a traditional Negro spiritual. It dates back to the era of slavery in the United States when it was common practice to sell children of slaves away from their parents. An early performance of the song dates back to the 1870s by the Fisk Jubilee Singers. Like many traditional songs, it has many variations and has been recorded widely.
The song is clearly an expression of pain and despair as it conveys the hopelessness of a child who has been torn from their parents. Under one interpretation, the repetitive singing of the word "sometimes" offers a measure of hope, as it suggests that at least "sometimes" I do not feel like a motherless child.
Although the plaintive words can be interpreted literally, they might alternatively be metaphoric. The “motherless child” could be a slave separated from and yearning for his or her African homeland, his or her spouse, parents, siblings or child(ren) (from all or any of which he or she may have been separated in the trafficking process) or a slave suffering “a long ways from home”—home being heaven—or most likely all.
Notable versions and covers
- Paul Robeson, originally recorded by EMI in the 1930s, rereleased on Songs of Free Men (1997) and on Paul Robeson: The Complete EMI Sessions 1928-1939 (2008) and on several previous LPs
- Bobby Breen, in the movie "Way Down South" (1939)
- Elmer Keeton, who arranged a performance by the Bay Area Negro Chorus for a radio program commissioned in 1942 by the Federal Music Project, Works Progress Administration. This version was earlier used in an animated Soviet propaganda film called Black and White (1932) depicting racism in the United States.
- country singer Eddy Arnold (1955)
- Louis Armstrong on Louis and the Good Book (1958)
- Fats Waller
- Grant Green on Feelin' the Spirit (1962)
- Odetta's live performance of the song on April 8, 1960 at Carnegie Hall was released on Odetta at Carnegie Hall (1960) and used in the soundtrack of Pasolini's film The Gospel According to St. Matthew (1964); she performed it as recently as summer 2008, during her final tour.
- Lou Rawls and the Pilgrim Travelers for the album The Soul Stirring Gospel Sound of the Pilgrim Travelers (1962)
- Pete Seeger, on the album American Favorite Ballads, Vol. 3
- Folk artists The Simon Sisters in the mid 1960s
- Peter, Paul & Mary on A Song Will Rise (1965)
- Mahalia Jackson recorded it as a medley with Gershwin's "Summertime"
- Darlene Love covered part of it for the first part of the Gospel Medley in the Elvis Presley's '68 Comeback Special (1968)
- Richie Havens performed a live cover of it for 1969's Woodstock festival, his recording appearing on both the album and in the documentary film.
- Jimmy Scott on his album The Source (1969)
- Ike & Tina Turner covered it on their album Outta Season (1969)
- Kathleen Emery on her single (1970)
- Egill Ólafsson
- El Chicano on their initial album Viva Tirado (1970)
- The Les Humphries Singers on their first album Rock My Soul (1970)
- The Osmonds on the album The Osmonds Live (1971)
- Boney M. on their second album Love for Sale (1977)
- Maria Farantouri on her album Protest songs from around the world (1978)
- Van Morrison on Poetic Champions Compose (1987), also on The Best of Van Morrison Volume Two (1993)
- Martin L. Gore, on Counterfeit e.p. (1989)
- Wynton Marsalis, Track 14: Traditional Spiritual from Portrait of Wynton Marsalis, SONY Classical, 1989/92
- Crime and the City Solution, on Paradise Discotheque (1990)
- Charlie Haden and Hank Jones on Steal Away: Spirituals, Hymns, and Folk Songs
- Marion Williams recorded it on "Strong Again" (1991)
- The Kelly Family on Honest Workers (1991)
- Hootie & the Blowfish, on Cracked Rear View (1994)
- Kevin Eubanks, on Live at Bradley’s (1996, Blue Note) (1994)
- Ghostface Killah on Ironman (1996)
- Tom Jones (accompanied by Portishead) on Reload (1999)
- Amy Jo Johnson, for the film Sweetwater: A True Rock Story (1999)
- Waterson on Matchbox Selection (2000)
- Under the name Lucky Pierre, Aidan Moffat used an operatic sample of the phrase "Sometimes I feel like a motherless child" on the track of the same name from his 2002 solo album Hypnogogia.
- Dick Annegarn covered it in French as "Enfant sans mère" on Un' Ombre (2002).
- James Gelfand (Jack Paradise (les nuits de Montréal) Soundtrack, 2004)
- Madrugada on their live album Live at Tralfamadore (2005).
- John Legend on Solo Sessions Vol. 1: Live at the Knitting Factory (2005) and at the Hope for Haiti Now telethon (2010).
- Wishbone Ash on Clan Destiny (2006)
- Eric Burdon, for the film The Blue Hour (2007).
- Matthew Perryman Jones, on Swallow the Sea (2008)
- Beth Nielsen Chapman, the 2008 compilation album, Song of America
- Anthony Rankin Wilson - Motherless Child [from the movie: "Addicted to plastic"]
- Prince - Motherless Child [Performed live in 1999, 2002, 2004, 2013]
- Clutch created a song heavily inspired by the original with the same name, adding in new lyrics and turning it into a hard rock song. It has no definite meaning, as with most Clutch songs.
- Egill Ólafsson performs the song at the album for his 60th anniversary "Örlög minn" (My Destiny) - release October 2013
- Rede Globo (Globe Network) This song was performed in the final episode of the Brazilian Globo series "Amores Proibidos" in January 17, 2013.
- "Blue Gene" Tyranny, "Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child" article, Allmusic
- Barton, Hymns of the Slave and the Freedman, p.17 ("Not very long ago I attended a concert given by a troupe of jubilee singers, whose leader was a member of the original Fisk company. Toward the end of the programme he announced that a recently arrived singer in his troupe from Mississippi had brought a song that her grandparents sang in slave times, which he counted the saddest and most beautiful of song of slavery. It was a mutilated version of Aunt Dinah's song ['Motherless Child' or 'I feel like I'd never been borned.']")
- *"Sweet Chariot: the story of the spirituals" by Arthur C. Jones
- Miller, Leta E. (Fall 2010). "Elmer Keeton and His Bay Area Negro Chorus: Creating an Artistic Identity in Depression-Era San Francisco" (PDF). Black Music Research Journal (Board of Trustees of the University of Illinois) 30 (2): 117–118. Retrieved 19 May 2013.
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- Jocelyn Vena, "'Hope For Haiti Now' Telethon Airs Tonight At 8 P.M.: George Clooney, Wyclef Jean and Hollywood's biggest names help raise money for earthquake relief." MTV News, January 22, 2010, found at MTV News. Accessed January 22, 2010.