|Jacob's Ladder, as envisioned by William Blake|
Jacob's Ladder: it is an image of mythic and archetypal dimension. The Negro spiritual by that name is one of beauty and simplicity, and it is a song that makes that archetypal depth readily accessible. The tune is easily sung and the lyrics can be quickly learned. With its origins among an enslaved people and its imagery rooted in an the Old Testament account of a man on the run, it speaks from a deep authenticity. William Blake's artistry sought to capture the cosmic nature of an ancient dream while the song affirms humanity's participation in a common hope, perhaps even cosmic in nature, that dares to look beyond the mundane earthly fabric of ordinary existence. For me, the memorable power of this song is experienced when it is sung by an audience -- a congregation, if you will -- a group of people gathered together. The act of singing, joining in the harmony, placing oneself within the imagery of hope makes the song one that can expand the soul and cause people to take heart for tomorrow.
I have fond memories of singing this spiritual in church congregations where hearts and voices made for a palpable sense of belonging. Pete Seeger, perhaps more than any other performer, understood the significance of group singing. He managed to form a choir out of his audience whenever he performed. Seeger had the ability to draw his audience in to the experience of song and his version of "Jacob's Ladder" is the most universally accessible that I have heard.
Every round, a generation
I've included two videos of Seeger leading the audience in Jacob's Ladder, both are live recordings. The first features a 1980 audio recording from a concert at Harvard's Sanders Theatre in Cambridge, MA. It offers the listener that sense of purpose, hope, and camaraderie that everyone needs to experience from time to time. You can hear that voice, still vibrant and strong at the youthful age of 61. The second video is from a live concert at Wolftrap in 1993. Pete gets the audience singing along, as was his custom. He also adds another version of the song that he learned "from the women in Milwaukee ...'We are dancing Sarah's circle... Every round a generation'..." At that time he was 74, still learning, still holding his own. (You'll also see Arlo Guthrie and Pete's son-in-law, Tao Rodriguez performing on stage)
* * *