Essays & Articles

“We Gonna Face The Risin’ Sun”
(A different (?) slant on the 4 and 20 elders – a pre-Christian root from Africa) – by Max Haymes

The above main title comes from a recording by the Delta Big Four from Mississippi who cut it c. 25th. May 1930, in Grafton, Wisconsin, for the Paramount Record label.  They commence this, their record debut with these lines:

I see four an’ twenty elders on their knees;
I see four an’ twenty elders on their knees.
Ref:      An’ we’ll all rise together, (my Lordy)
We gonna face the risin’ sun;
Oh! Lord! (Oh! Lord!)
Have mercy if you please.  (1)

Called We All Gonna Face The Rising Sun, it had been previously recorded by other artists as ‘Four And Twenty Elders’.  Within two months or so, of each other, the Rev. J.M. Gates (from Atlanta!) and the Birmingham Jubilee Singers cut versions in September and November of 1926, respectively.  Another was made by the I.C. Colored Glee Club in early 1928 but remains an unissued item on OKeh. However, the previous year of 1927 saw the release of a version entitled O Lord Have Mercy  [Columbia 142145-D] by an excellent a cappella group called the Southern Wonders, drawing on the archaic moans of the black interpretation of the long metre hymn.

See the four an’ twenty elders on their knees;
See the four an’ twenty elders on their knees.
Let us all pray together an’ face the risin’ sun;
Ohhhhh! Lord!
La-wed! Have mercy if you please. (2)

And as ‘Lord Have Mercy If You Please’ it was cut in 1933 for Vocalion by Blind Willie McTell, seminal blues man, also from Georgia, and based for sometime in Atlanta.  Accompanied by his good friend Curley Weaver on guitar and second vocal, this version is taken at a faster clip and includes some nice bottleneck 12-string guitar from McTell.

Three of the others follow a more traditional approach as a spiritual.  But the Delta Big Four used the archaic long-metre style, possibly inspired by the earlier disc by the Southern Wonders and popularized by early Methodist preachers when teaching their hymns to slaves in the earlier 19th. Century.  African American James Cone quoted Miles Mark Fisher in “another helpful analysis…of the spirituals.” (3) And Cone “contends that the spirituals ‘Sinner, Please Don’t Let This Harvest Pass’ and ‘Let’s Praise God Together On Our Knees’ probably referred to a slave resistance meeting that was more African than Christian he dates both between 1790 and 1815.” (4)


Title Artist Date/Location
1. Four And Twenty Elders Rev. J.M. Gates prob. 9th. or 19th. September 1926. New York City.
2. Four And Twenty Elders Rev. J.M. Gates c. 13th. September 1926. New York City.
3. Four And Twenty Elders Birmingham Jubilee Singers Friday, 5th. November 1926. Atlanta, Georgia.
4. O Lord Have Mercy Southern Wonders Wednesday, 31st. August 1927. New York.
5. Four And Twenty Elders On Their Knees I.C. Glee Club
(OKeh unissued)
Thursday, 16th. February1928. Memphis, Tennessee.
6. We Gonna Face The Risin’ Sun Delta Big Four c. 25th. May 1930. Grafton, Wisconsin.
7. Lord, Have Mercy If You Please Blind Willie McTell Monday, 18th. September 1933. New York City.

The foregoing 7 recordings are the only ones made, as far as we know, in the pre-war era (1891-1943).  But another source gives ‘The Rising Sun’ a far older vintage from the continent of Africa and its savannah regions of the Upper Volta River.

This concerns the West African tribe, the Dogon, who live in the “area of southern Mali and north-central Upper Volta where [they] live [which] is savannah, broken by gorges, hills, and rocky outcroppings.” (5)  Pelton reports that in Dogon tradition “The Society of Masks, to which all males belong ‘from the time their beards first appear until they turn white’,…[and] its language is secret,…and its chief public functions are the performance of funeral rites and the celebration of the Sigui festival.” (6)  This festival is held “only once every sixty years.” (7)

This is the heritage of a Dogon god, Ogo.  “During Sigui all males consecrate themselves and the whole community to the Great Mask, the symbol of their world, by a ritual of beer-drinking.  Seated on special ‘mask-seats’ as they drink they represent the mythic ancestor who helped to purify the world after the first human death.  But this drinking of beer is itself a cleansing ritual.  The elders often drink too much during funeral rites and great feasts, but their drunkenness is looked on with affectionate amusement.  It is the drunken elders, on the contrary, who berate passers-by telling them ‘The dead are dying of thirst’, this warning that the dead will remain in a radically unstable situation until their memorial altar pots (from which the child who inherits a part of his ancestor’s life force will always drink) are consecrated. “ (8)

Going into more detail of these ‘memorial altar pots’, Pelton discusses the all-powerful  influence of these elders “in their drunkeness  [they] have a unique power to oversee the passages from life to death to life.  In their disorder they become the vindicators of order.  Their drunkenness very literally renews the world as their distorted words help the dead pass on to ancestorhood.” (9) And “Each old man , sloppy and abusive, dissolving in mind and body, becomes a living witness to communal renewal.” (10)

Lucille Bogan c. 1933

A female blues singer, Lucille Bogan (1897-1948) and famous for her raunchiest of blues on record, put out a Sloppy Drunk Blues [Brunswick 7210] in 1930, picked up by many well-known singers such as Leroy Carr, Walter Davis, and a post-war recording by Chicago’s Jimmy Rogers.  She included the following verse

I’d rather be sloppy drunk, sittin’ in the can. (x 2)
Than to be at home, rollin’ with my man. (11)

Backed by some beautifully integrated piano from Charles Avery, she then invokes the Dogon belief of being a ‘living witness’ as she plans to get more disruptive.

Mmmm-mmmm. Bring me another two-bit pint. (x 2)
‘Cos I got my habits on, I’m goin’ to wreck this joint.

I bin on this ‘sloppy drunk’ for a solid year. (x 2)
An’ when I c’ain’t get my whiskey bring me my cool can beer. (12)

Similarly, Ma Rainey – ‘Mother of the Blues’ – recorded her version of Dead Drunk Blues [Paramount 12508] in 1927.

Spoken: My man is freakin’ drunk, this mornin’. Daddy,
say, be yourself.
1. Oh! Whiskey, whiskey is some folk’s downfall. (x 2)
But if I don’t get whiskey, I ain’t no good at all.
2. When I was in Houston, drunk most every day;
When I was in Houston, drunk most every day.
Spoken: Lord! Where’s the police?
I drank so much whiskey I thought I’d pass away.
3. Have you ever been drunk, slept in all your clothes? (x 2)
An’ when you wake up, feel like you’se out o’ doors.
4. Daddy. I’m gon’ get drunk just one more time;
Spoken: Where’s the whiskey bottle?
Honey, I’m gonna get drunk, papa, just one more time.
‘Cos when I’m drunk, nothing’s gon’ worry my mind. (13)

Ma Rainey and her Georgia Band – c. 1925

Ma’s opening comment reflects a more usual phrase in early blues. ‘I’m gonna get drunk an’ speak my sober mind.’  Does all the above point to some sort of vestigial link with the Dogon festival held every 60 years?

Another take of the biblical 4 and 20 elders leads us to even darker paths than the senior drunken Dogon tribe members.  This involves the-surprisingly-cosy figure of Mother Goose (at least in the US)  normally more at home telling stories and nursery rhymes/singing songs to awestruck children.

While discussing origins of the well-known nursery rhyme ‘Sing A Song Of Sixpence’, the opening and original words ran:

“Sing a Song of Sixpence,
A bag full of Rye, [Footnote] Four and twenty
Naughty boys,
Bak’d in a Pye.”  (14)

This nursery rhyme may go back to the early 16th. century in Shakespeare’s time and was to be ‘adapted’ (or stolen!) by the Americans in the 18th. century; along with the Mother Goose tales!  The closing lines reflect a genuine, perceived horror and dread by enslaved African Americans in the 17th. century, while on the horrendous Middle Passage, that they were  eventually to be eaten by the strange, ugly  beings (the white people) on arrival in the ‘New World’.  This was I am sure reinforced by some of the slave ship’s crew to keep their human cargo more docile on the voyage.

And it seems significant that the phrase ‘naughty boys’ was later to be replaced with the familiar ‘four and twenty black birds’.  In the Southern slave culture of the time this could have been construed as 24 young African American-or ‘black’- boys; continuing this belief once the slaves were esconced on Southern plantations.

The fascinating notes by the Baring-Goulds refer to the number 24 in the rhyme.  “We shall find that ‘four and twenty’ is one of the numbers most frequently met with in ‘Mother Goose’ rhymes.  It is of course, ‘a double dozen’ and the number 12 is rich in associations, traditions, and superstitions.’”.(15)  Not forgetting its appearance in mainstream religions!  Playing the dozens of course was (is) a well-known insulting song among adolescent black teenagers (usually boys in the earlier period) in 20th. century America.

Indeed, one of the earliest appearance of the four and twenty elders comes from the Bible (Revelations: V. 8; 14)  Although the phrase ‘on your knees’ is absent.

I am engaged in yet another project linking Mother Goose back to an ancient Scottish legend of the witch Nicnevin who always had a flock of wild geese in tow a she wreaked havoc across the Scottish countryside.  Apparently, (from memory) she could transform the sea into rock with ‘her waters’.  Definitely a lady not to be messed with!!

‘Mississippi’ Max Haymes  January, 2015.

Copyright © Max Haymes 2015. All Rights Reserved.


Footnote: Later on as ‘A pocketful of rye’.


1. ‘We All Gonna Face The Rising Sun’ The Delta Big Four: Wheeler Ford lead vo.; Ivory Lou ‘Pecan’ Allen tenor vo.; Will Mosely baritone vo.; Archie Smith bass vo.; unacc. c. 25th. May 1930. Grafton, Wisconsin.
2. ‘O Lord Have Mercy’ The Southern Wonders: Oliver Green, Theodore Walker, Roy Walker, Victor Walker vo.; unacc. Wednesday, 31st. August 1927. New York.
3. Cone J.H. p.15.
4. Ibid.
5. Pelton R.D. p.179.
6. Ibid. p.p.199-200.
7. Ibid. p.200.
8. Ibid. p.203.
9. Ibid. p.204.
10. Ibid.
11. ‘Sloppy Drunk Blues’ Lucille Bogan vo.; Charles Avery pno.
12. Ibid. c. late March Chicago, Illinois.
13. ‘Dead Drunk Blues’ Ma Rainey vo., speech; Claude ‘Hop’ Hopkins pno. c. August 1927. Chicago, Illinois.
14. Baring-Gould W.S. & C. Baring-Gould p.26.
15. Ibid. p.27.


Baring-Gould William S. & Ceil The Annotated Mother Goose
(A Meridian Book New York & Scarborough, Ontario) 1967. 1st. pub. 1962.
Cone James H. The Spirituals And The Blues [Orbis Books. Maryknoll, New York] March 2009. Rep. 1972.
Pelton Robert D. The Trickster in West Africa (a Study of Mythic Irony and Delight)
(University of California Press. Berkeley. Los Angeles. London)  1980.
Discographical details from Blues & Gospel Records 1890-1943 4th. Ed. Robert M.W. Dixon. John Godrich and Howard Rye. [Clarendon Press. Oxford] 1997.