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The Bob Zentz Songbook

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The Story of the Traditional Song "Shine on Me"

Reproduced by permission of the U.S. Library of Congress American Folklife Center

 

 

According to Meade, Spottswood and Meade’s Country Music Sources, the earliest known published version of “Shine on Me” appeared in Songs & Spirituals (Chicago: Overton-Hygienic Co., 1921).

The song was recorded by both black and white artists during the 1920s, ‘30s and ‘40s (and, apparently, continues to be recorded by both communities right up to today). Ralph Peer recorded Ernest Phipps and His Holiness Singers from Kentucky performing “Shine on Me” on 10/29/1928 at the famous “Bristol Sessions” in Bristol, Tennessee, where the Carter Family, Jimmie Rodgers, and the Stoneman Family also got their careers jump-started. It is the Phipps version of "Shine on Me" that was included on Harry Smith's 1952 folksong compendium Anthology of American Folk Music, and which also appears on the Country Music Foundation compilation The Bristol Sessions.

You will notice in the Phipps version that the rhythm really picks up speed in the middle of the song. According to notes by Moses Asch, Josh Dunson and Ethel Raim in the 1973 Oak Publications book Anthology of American Folk Music (meant as a supplement to the Harry Smith Anthology),

“The device of stepping up the beat after singing several verses slowly was, according to Harry Smith, first recorded by Blind Willie Johnson, who also recorded a version of “Shine On Me” for Columbia. The version included in the Anthology is by Ernest Phipps and his Holiness Singers, recorded in 1930 for Bluebird. This tune is close to “Amazing Grace.” Some great examples of the syncopated singing of the last verses can be found in the singing of the black congregations of the Sea Islands. The Moving Star Hall Church congregation was recorded by Guy Carawan and is well worth listening to ("Been in the Storm So Long," Folkways FS 3842).”

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Here are the field recordings of “Shine on Me” that we have here in our Archive of Folk Culture at the American Folklife Center, Library of Congress:

John Lomax recorded “Shine on Me” in an unidentified rural Baptist church in Alexandria, Virginia, in September of 1933 (AFS 00087 B02). His son Alan Lomax recorded Leadbelly singing “Shine on Me” for this Archive here in the Library of Congress in August of 1940 (AFS 04471 B01). There is yet a third version of this song in our Archive, titled “Let the Light from the Lighthouse,” recorded by John Henry Faulk at the Church of God in Christ in Navasota, Texas in August of 1941. (AFS 05438 B04)

You can see the original catalog cards for all three of these recordings by entering "Shine on Me" in the LOC's online Catalog of Early Field Recordings at:

 

           http://memory.loc.gov/diglib/ihas/html/afccards/afccards-home.html

When doing further research on this song, be aware that “Shine on Me” is also recorded and indexed under several alternate titles, including “Let it Shine on Me,” “Will the Lighthouse Shine on Me,” and “Let the Light from the Lighthouse Shine on Me.”

Given the widespread distribution and diffuse text of this chorus, it is our opinion that “Shine on Me” truly is a traditional song. Though the verses differ widely according to the community singing it, the recurring lines of the chorus are found in some form in all of those versions.

 

 

To get an answer to your questions about traditional music, "Ask A Librarian" at the LOC!

 

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