Songs of the Appalachian Hermeneutic – Tramp on the Street

As a side (socio-theological) project, I am trying to ‘build’ and Appalachian Hermeneutic, which will look at how the Appalachian people, more especially those in the coal fields of Kentucky, West Virginia, Tennessee, Virginia, and Pennsylvania perceive, interpret and reflect the bible. Today, I want to look at a (once) popular song among the tiny church houses in these hills.

My earliest memory of hearing this song was the Molly O’Day version,

Written by Grady and Hazel Cole, the song is generally sung as,

Only a tramp was Lazarus that day
He who lay down by the rich man’s gate
And he begged for the crumbs from the rich man to eat
But they left him to die like a tramp on the street

He was some mother’s darling, he was some mother’s son
Once he was fair, once he was young
Some mother rocked him, little darling, to sleep
But they left him to die like a tramp on the street

If Jesus should come, knock at your door
Would you let him come in, take from your store
Would you turn him away, with nothing to eat
They left him to die like a tramp on the street

He was Mary’s own darling, God’s chosen son
Once he was fair, once he was young
And Mary, she rocked him, little darling to sleep
And she left him to die like a tramp on the street

Other versions have a couple of different/additional verses:

Jesus who died on Calvary’s tree
Shed his life’s blood for you and me
They pierced his side, his hands, and his feet
Then they left him to die like a tramp on the street

If Jesus should come and knock o your door
For a place to lie down or bread from your store
Would you welcome him in or turn him away
For God would reward you on the great Judgment Day

The story goes that Cole patterned the song after a previous generation’s song, creating a Gospel-themed hymn. It is sung, like many Appalachian songs, in a slow, almost mournful pace, indicating not the lack of talent for the singer, but the need to deliver a message in song.

The original song, composed in Georgia’s northern reach into the southern end of Appalachia, lacks the theology stressed in many congregations, that of the deity of Christ and the dual-nature of the Son. It speaks merely of a very human Jesus and his very human mother. He is not better, in the song, than another bum, but leaves the audience having to picture Christ. He could be nothing more than a prophet, or a leader, a teacher, or the Son of God – the song does not say. It calls attention to human suffering, which is still a plight in Appalachia at times, using the story of Lazarus (Luke 16.19-31). Notice that the only thing used of the biblical account is Lazarus’ plight, and not the vindication offered to the poor in the parable.

It couches Jesus as the incarnation of social concerns, asking the reader to remember the poor and destitute as if they were Jesus Himself. No theology to speak of, only that of expressing the Gospel’s social concern. (Matthew 25.34-46)

It seems that Joan Baez has updated it a bit,

For the record, Joan’s lyrics are,

Only a tramp was Lazarus that day,
He lay down by the rich man’s gate.
He begged for crumbs from the rich man to eat
But they left him to die like a tramp on the street.

And Jesus who died on Calvary’s tree,
Shed his life blood for you and for me
They pierced his side, his hands and his feet
And they left Him to die like a tramp on the street.

He was Mary’s own darlin’, he was Mary’s own son;
Once he was fair and once he was young,
And Mary she rocked him, her little darlin’ to sleep,
But they left him to die like a tramp on the street.

When the battles are over, and the victory’s won,
Everyone mourns with the poor man’s son,
Red white and blue, and victory sweet,
And they left him to die like a tramp on the street.

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