“O Mary don’t you weep, don’t you mourn
Pharaoh’s army got drowned.”
I remember first hearing this strange song in my teens. I thought, “Consoling Mary, the so-called mother of Jesus with the fairy tale of the parting of the Red Sea? “ It was Tennessee Ernie Ford’s bouncy rendition that caught my attention first. To me it was a joke but he sounded so sincere. It was as if he were saying, “Mary, I know it’s hard to watch your Son die, but remember how God fulfilled His promises to Moses and the children of Israel? He will do the same thing today with our Jesus.”
“When I get to heaven gonna put on my shoes.”
Like most of the Negro Spirituals, O MARY reflects the hopes of a man in bondage to slavery. Maybe the writer had shoes that were torn and all but useless. Maybe he had no shoes at all. But in heaven we all have shoes that are new! Shoes that shine, shoes that fit. Such a beautiful portrait of glorious expectation!
But this was being sung by a rich white guy! What did it mean? Were we all in bondage? Was I a slave? And to what?
“When I get to heaven gonna sing and shout.
Nobody there gonna keep me out”
That’s when I understood. Everyone feels excluded from something- a club, a group, a level or experience of love or success. Jesus is the Great Equalizer. He welcomes all and all the same.
This little song taught me that there was hope beyond this world and that God had a plan to help me find it. As a Jewish kid I knew that, according to the Old Testament, after God parted the Red Sea for the Israelites, he closed the gap and drowned all of Pharaoh’s army, sending a message to the whole world that one may want to think twice before attacking God’s people.
But I wanted the shoes.
And I wanted to feel the love and acceptance of a God in heaven that would never reject me.
I recorded this song as tribute to Tennessee Ernie Ford and gratitude from the 19-year-old kid who knew upon listening that this was more than a goofy period piece but a righteous expression of total faith and surrender to the truth unseen.
Unseen, yes. But unshakeable nonetheless.