The Master of the Sheepfold
About the Song
This lyrics to the song have been attributed to a poem by Sarah Pratt McLean Greene (1856-1935). The poem was included in a 1906 book entitled Heart Throbs, written in African American "dialect" often used in transcribing African American spirituals and other traditional African American songs. Here are the lyrics of that poem. There's an early version (copyright 1895 by R.L. Durant, words by Sarah Pratt McLean Greene, Music by John Kimball Reynolds) on the Library of Congress American Memory site here, from the Brown University collection of African-American Sheet Music, 1850-1920.
Art Thieme wrote to Mudcat about the song: "It was me, Arthur David Thieme, who changed it to "master" instead of "massa" etc., etc., I did that because for me to sing it with that "outrageous dialect" would've been phony as hell, not me at all, and as racist as any minstrel who sang in blackface while prancing around the stage like Steppen Fetchit (spelling?). I have always felt that to try to get/catch the early Afro-American dialect by corrupting the English language printed word was simply wrong.
People, this song to me is about INCLUSION-----not exclusion. That's all. It's saying that there should be room for all points on the compass----all viewpoints---all religions. I admit that my feelings in this regard are tempered by my own personal experiences with narrow and exclusive aspects of religions that impinge on my life quite often. That is why I learned the song. That is why I like the song. That is why I wanted others to learn and like the song. I was proclaiming and taking a stand against exclusion when I sang it. Other Biblical references you might see in it are peripheral for me, but that's O.K. ;-) Sing it any way you want to sing it. Have it mean anything at all that you want it to mean.
I am simply glad that I had a role in getting this good song out there. It is cool as hell that few know I was the first to record it or that I was the guy who morphed it !!!!!! ;-) You can't get much more traditional than that."
Jerry Epstein said on his liner notes he had found a version in faux-Black dialect. 'The Massa of the Sheepfold is from a genre of pseudo-Black dialect "spirituals" that had a vogue around the turn of the century. I learned it my first summer at Pinewoods Camp (1965) from Susan Richardson Slyman. She told me that she had learned it from Bill Boyun who had collected it in Maine. Lucy simpson has found a printed version in an old hymnal where it was titled "De Massa Ob De Sheepfold." Not a prime example of political correctness in this day and age. Good song, though. I get more requests for this than for any other song.'
- Art Thieme "On the Wilderness Road" 1986 for Folk-Legacy Records.
- Jerry Epstein "Time Has Made a Change in Me" 1995 on Minstrel Records.
- Anne Hills & Cindy Mangsen on their 1998 "Never Grow Up" album on Rounder Records. With piano accompaniment by Pete Sutherland
- Adam Miller on his 2011 "Buttercup Joe" album.