The Complicatist: When Good Hymns Are Sung By Bad People

That song from Night of the Hunter

by Gordon Campbell

DOWNLOAD MP3 Leaning on the Everlasting Arms – Johm McGee and Tom Cogar (1928)

If they know it at all, most people remember ‘Leaning on the Everlasting Arms’ as the signature song of the evil preacher acted by Robert Mitchum in the film Night of the Hunter. Mitchum sings it on more than one occasion during the movie – and like many a good hymn, it can be beautiful and frightening at the same time. Yet before trying to find out where the song came from – and how Mitchum got his hands on it – the story called for an insider view.

So I wrote to Jim White in Athens, Georgia, the genius singer/songwriter at the centre of film/album The Search for the Wrong-Eyed Jesus, and a series of fine albums since. White grew up on the inside rail of Southern Pentecostalism and its imprint is still evident in his music today. It seemed obvious he would be the person to ask about ‘Leaning on the Everlasting Arms’. This is what he wrote back :

Everything Sacred Degenerates
by Jim White

Leaning, leaning, safe and secure from all harm.
Leaning, leaning, leaning on the everlasting arms.

It’s summer in the year 1967, so that makes me ten years old. I’m laying on that raggedy old couch that we keep out on the screened-in porch. It’s hotter than Hell itself this afternoon and the combination of heat and me being slightly hung-over renders the world as a sort of stuporous half dream. What’s that song I hear? Isn’t that that damn hymn I used to sing with Johnny Bonifay’s family when they would drag me off at that holiness church over in Brownsville?

What have I to dread? What have I to fear?
Leaning on the everlasting arms…

I rouse myself from my slumber and look over at our Zenith black and white TV. It’s on and there’s some kind of Preacher intoning that old hymn, but he’s the sorriest excuse for a Preacher I’ve ever laid eyes on.

It’s not his appearance so much as the worrisome quality to his delivery. He seems untrustworthy, but how can a Man of God be untrustworthy? Nothing seems right—it’s not Sunday morning and this isn’t even a religious show that’s on, not Gospel Jubilee, or Coffee With The Parson. It’s a movie being played on Dialing For Dollars*, the afternoon movie matinee.

Now I remember, I’d turned the TV on, hoping for one of those westerns starring Audie Murphy or maybe some campy horror film with Vincent Price playing a demented genius inventor. But today the Dialing For Dollars movie is different. I prop my head up and try to catch up with the plot. First off what’s disorienting is that the action seems to take place in the where I live, in the underbelly of the South. I’ve never seen a movie about my homeland before. It occurs to me that I should pay attention, but shortly thereafter the stupor overtakes me and I drift back off to sleep again.

Now I hear children crying. I struggle to wake myself up, to pay attention and sort out the riddle developing before me. The children are characters in the film and they’re always in danger and the wellspring of their terror is that singing Preacher.

Even as I watch I wonder if perhaps this movie, something called Night Of The Hunter, is just a dreamed thing, because it’s so different from any movie I’ve ever seen before. Things go so terribly wrong here. The children are haunted and hunted and betrayed by adults who should save them.

Sleep overtakes me again. When I awaken next I’m greeted by the horrific image of a blonde woman seated in an old Model T at the bottom of a lake. Her hair wafts upwards gently in the current and her throat has been slit.

The Preacher.

The children are again escaping from God’s Devil Man, who I now realize bears more than a passing resemblance to my father.

Now they children have found a safe refuge, sleeping in a hayloft. The sun is almost rising. It’s a quiet, pastoral moment, but there it comes again— that song being sung off in the distance.

Leaning, leaning, leaning on the everlasting arms…

The boy, who’s about my age, hears the insidious hymn and goes bolt upright. He scans the horizon and spies that Preacher sauntering toward the barn on an old swayback nag.

At this moment, as I hang there in that liminal state between waking and sleep, some seminal string of thought at the center of my being snaps and a certain house of cards comprised of all notions of the sacred within me; of Jesus and prayer and trust in Men of God, of everything holy, shivers and begins to sway. Then this mental construct goes still and the shudder passes as the children are rescued by a tough old woman with a shotgun. The Preacher is routed, but the damage has been done.

It will take another few years for that house of cards to fully collapse, as some myths of childhood come apart according to a physics all their own, but upon hearing the Preacher’s twisted rendition of that sacred song, the first true assault on the citadel of my faith has begun.

*If the title of the show sounds familiar you might remember it from Janis Joplin’s hit song Mercedes Benz (“Oh Lord, won’t you buy me a color TV? Dialing For Dollars is trying to find me…”). Dialing For Dollars was a popular afternoon TV program out of Mobile, Alabama that featured a daily live drawing from a mesh barrel tumbler that held thousands of names submitted by viewers. Each day one lucky name was drawn, the person was called and if they could correctly identify the movie playing, they would receive a cash prize of fifty dollars. – Jim White

As for the song itself….Well, its not hard to establish that ‘Leaning on the Everlasting Arms’ was written in 1887, by a different kind of preacher, named Anthony J. Showalter. He hailed from the Shenandoah Valley in Virginia, and had previously run Sacred Harp* singing groups in Georgia and Alabama. He felt inspired to write the hymn after trying to console two former students in South Carolina, whose wives had recently died. To ease their pain, Showalter cited to them Deuteronomy 33 : 27 :

“The eternal God is thy refuge, and underneath are the everlasting arms: and He shall thrust out the enemy from before thee; and shall say, Destroy them.”

Afterwards, Showalter felt there was a hymn lurking in those lines, so he knocked out a tune on his piano and a related set of lyrics and posted them off to yet another Pentecostal preacher called Elisha Hoffman, who tidied them up and added a few lines of his own. The pair added the finished work to a book of sacred songs they had been working on, called The Glad Evangel for Revival, Camp, and Evangelistic Meetings, Over the next few decades the hymn gradually became a perennial on the revival circuit. Note how those lines from Deuteronomy that speak of the everlasting arms of refuge also portray the divine arms as preparing the enemy for destruction. In the Old Testament at least, God had “Love” and “Hate” tattooed on His own knuckles.

Beforehand, I‘d assumed Mitchum had probably heard the song during his wild days of rambling around America in the 1930s, before he ended up in Hollywood. He’d dug ditches, ridden the rails, been sentenced at age 14 to a stretch on a chain gang and even earned a few bucks here and there as a professional boxer. It was easy to imagine that during those hobo days, Mitchum might have attended the same sort of tent and campfire revival meetings briefly depicted in Night of the Hunter.

Maybe he did, but there’s a more prosaic possibility. In 1943, ‘Leaning on the Everlasting Arms’ had featured in a wholesome film called The Human Comedy, starring Mickey Rooney. This was the sort of worthy effort that wins Oscars, and then vanishes into obscurity. While glancing down the cast list for The Human Comedy, I noticed right at the tail end of the credits, a bit player called Horse, who had been played by…Robert Mitchum. It was only his second film, and well before his breakthrough to leading man status.

So…yes, that hymn may have fit like a glove the basic theme of Night of the Hunter – that children struggle to find a safe refuge in this turbulent world. But I can’t help thinking that Mitchum, the Hollywood outsider, would have relished turning the song from that sappy Mickey Rooney film into its mirror opposite – still beautiful, yet now the calling card of an evil let loose in the world. In Mitchum’s hands and in this context, it was a bit like Sid Vicious singing ‘ My Way.’

Like most easy and attractive songs, “Leaning on the Everlasting Arms’ is extremely hard to sing well. Even a sensitive soul like Iris Dement couldn’t do it justice. Neither did the Stanley Brothers. The rule of thumb is – go easy on the sugar. Which is why I’ve chosen a version from the late 1920s by two guys called John McGhee (who had been born in 1882 in Griffithsville, West Virginia, five years before Showalter put pen to paper ) and his much younger colleague, Tommy Cogar.

This version was from an era – arbitrarily, lets say it ran from 1927 until about 1933 – that saw the last great spasm of pure regional music, untouched by the influence of radio and other mass media. Crucially, the era co-incided with the advent of relatively inexpensive and reasonably portable recording equipment. Anything in any style had a chance of being recorded by roaming record company talent scouts – at least once, anyway. “Some of these phantoms,” as the American music historian Dean Blackwood says, “ left behind music of such an otherworldly character that it genuinely retains the power to shock, confound, inspire and sustain, today.”

In fact, McGhee cut a huge number of tracks – some 300 in all – between 1928 and 1932, most of them with his usual partner Frank Welling. Judging by the call sheet I managed to access online, the two day session on December 3-4, 1928 that McGhee did with Tommy Cogar contained a fairly typical mixture of spirituals, sentimental morality tales and topical songs about recent murders and natural disasters.

For instance, when I looked up the online archive at Nashville’s Country Music Hall of Fame, the relevant tracklist also included such stirring titles as ‘Burial of The Miner’s Child’ and ‘I Want To Be a Worker For the Lord’ – plus a track called “The Vestris Disaster” obviously intended to cash in on the sinking only three weeks beforehand of the SS Vestris, with the loss of 127 lives. Came the Depression, this prolific and fantastically creative grassroots recording industry was virtually wiped out. John McGhee went back to hanging wallpaper for a living, and died in 1945.

The song and the movie that lent it so much resonance, live on. For those who have seen the film already, the entire river sequence is here.

Yet for sheer strangeness ( and astonishing lighting ) there’s not much to beat this penultimate scene as Mitchum closes in for the kill. Only to meet the indomitable Lillian Gish, wielding a shotgun. It is, as she says, a hard world for little things.


Footnotes :
The John McGhee/Tommy Cogar version can be found on the Yazoo Records compilation : The Half Ain’t Never Been Told Vol 2. Both it and volume one offer collections of early American folk, blues and religious music that cannot be recommended too highly.

2. Sacred Harp, or shape note music is a form of unaccompanied Protestant Christian choral music that originated in the South. Customarily, the four sections (trebles altos, tenors, basses) face each other, with a hollow square in the middle. Sung in day-long social gatherings rather than in church, Sacred Harp staples such as ‘Northfield’ ‘Travelling On’ ‘Mt Zion’ and ‘Sherburne’ are among the wildest and most beautiful songs in American music.