Friday, September 04, 2015

Satan Never Tempted Me - A brief digital history of an odd little tune


“Ol' Enoch he lived to be three-hundred and sixty-five when the Lord came down and took him up to heaven alive. .” - Bascom Lamar Lunsford, Dry Bones

There is an old song recorded by the folklorist Bascom Lamar Lunsford in 1928 under the title Dry Bones (Click Here to hear the song via Archive.org), I draw your attention to it due to the fact that it has rather odd lyrics for what seems to be an ordinary folk hymn. The lyrics of the last verse in this recording are odd enough that the Wikipedia entry on the song actually omits them in favor of an alternate version found on the webpage of contemporary folk singer Judy Cook.

The song begins without any controversy, yet after a few brief verses recounting the story of Enoch’s translation into heaven, Paul’s escape from prison, Moses and the burning bush, and Ezekiel’s vision of dry bones coming to life, Lunsford intones an eerie concluding verse that takes us back to the temptation in the Garden of Eden:

Adam and Eve in the Garden, under that Sycamore tree, Eve said to Adam, Satan never tempted me. I saw, I saw the light from Heaven shining all around. I saw the light come shining, I saw the light come down.”

In Cook’s version she changes Eve’s statement to the more orthodox - “Adam, Old Satan is a’tempting me.” Although Cook discovered the song via Lunsford’s recording, the version she uses changes the last verse to fit a rendering of the subject that balances with the standard Christian reading. Ironically Lunsford was known to alter and omit lines himself when he felt that they were too risqué for the educated Appalachian ‘hillbilly’ persona that he cultivated in his performances. The fact that this verse was included in his song means that they did not strike a particularly off chord with him. It's interesting to note that the description of the song on Archive.org does the same alteration as the Wikipedia entry and quotes the verse that Cook uses rather than Lunsford's clear singing of "Satan never tempted me" in the recording.

On her web-page where the altered lyrics of her version are found she includes some history on Lunsford’s recording saying that ‘he first heard (the song)…from a traveling Black preacher named Romney who came through western North Carolina.’

Lunsford was a lawyer in professional life and a careful folklorist, the idea that he might have mistaken the controversial last verse seems unlikely and it proves to be much more fruitful if we return to the previous examples and examine what underlying theme connects all of these familiar Biblical stories and ties them together with this strange rethinking of the story of the Fall.  The answer is surprising considering the source – the theme is gnostic revelation, not the mixed bag of heretical doctrines that so inflamed the early Christian church, rather it is gnosis in its technical sense, that of a direct and intimate revelation of the Divine source. It’s a different sort of heresy, the kind that got Jesus nailed to a cross.

It also appears to be the kind of heresy that causes innumerable sources to innocently skew the lyrical content of a simple folk song without recognizing that they are damaging the oral transmission of a very potent spiritual teaching.  This simple little tune contains within it a key that opens up the Biblical narrative in a way that centuries of scholarly theological speculation, academic acrobatics and comparative analysis has failed to do – and it came from an itinerant evangelist passing through North Carolina in the early 20th century.

I can’t take any credit for discovering Lunsford’s recording, it was a link to the piece on Archive.org and a brief note from the contemplative mystic David Chaim Smith that lead me to it. He said quite simply – “This song has a very esoteric meaning if you understand the implications.” Mercifully Smith’s book The Kabbalistic Mirror of Genesis, now in its second edition thanks to Inner Traditions, helps illuminate the issue:
“The serpent is called “Nachash,” which has a numerical value of 358. This number shares gematria with the word “moshiach” (messiah). This suggests that the same power that can awaken the hearts of human beings can also cause confusion and antagonism. Creative tension is such a power. If its essential nature is recognized, then gnosis can be realized. However, if conventional fixation habitually contracts the brilliance of Ain Sof, then endless grasping will continually usurp creativity to manifest endless egoic nightmare scenarios. Life is what mind produces, and its habits determine the manner in which it will manifest. Thus the power of creativity inherent in the serpent stands at the cusp of discernment between the two trees in the garden and the two paths they represent.”
Smith’s book focuses on the first three chapters of Genesis, however, as we can see from the song and his explanation of the term nachash the implications of these teachings stretch throughout the Old and New Testament. In the introduction he indicates how exceptional the mystery implied by this song truly is when he points out that “hidden within the first three chapters of Genesis rests one of the greatest jewels of Western mystical literature. Proper appreciation of this is rare. For millennia religious literalism has dominated the role of the Bible, imprisoning its subtle inner wisdom within the most coarse and superficial aspects of the narrative.” Those familiar with the writings contained in the Zohar, Sefer Yetzirah and other classic kabbalistic texts will be surprised at the ease in which Smith opens up their seemingly impenetrable mysteries and reveals the Biblical narrative as a powerful source of non-dual contemplative teachings. Those unfamiliar with kabbalah will still be astonished at how the Bible, a text that has become so commonplace and derided in our society, offers them far more insight into gnostic contemplative practice than the material being churned out for the contemporary spiritual market.

So how did a wandering evangelist in North Carolina end up with a folk song that contains a core aspect of one of the deepest contemplative mysteries of the Judeo-Christian tradition? Perhaps he simply “saw the light from Heaven shining all around.” The oral tradition has a living power to it that defies attempts at easy explanation. Suffice to say, after listening to Lunsford’s tune or reading The Kabbalistic Mirror of Genesis the next time you’re in a hotel room you’ll look at that Gideon’s Bible a bit differently.

Click Here to visit the Inner Traditions website for more information on The Kabbalistic Mirror of Genesis.

Click Here to visit David Chaim Smith's webpage for more information on his work. 

All It Takes Is The Right Story. Mythos Media

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