Given that the Book of Revelations (otherwise known as the Revelation or Apocalypse of St. John the Divine) is a such central text in the American religious and cultural imagination, and given also the religious nature of our folk music, it is surprising that we have so few songs inspired by that book. Sure, there are plenty of songs expressing eschatological yearnings, such as the Carter Family’s “No Depression in Heaven” and Sister Rosetta Tharpe’s “All Over This World”, but I know of few directly using imagery from the last book of the Christian Bible. The major exception is Tribulations, an original composition by Virginia singer/guitarist Estil Cortez Ball, recorded by Alan Lomax in 1959 for his field recordings anthologized in Southern Journey . Before I speak about the song, I want to quote Harold Bloom on the influence of the Book of Revelations on American culture. He is speaking about the Jehovah’s Witnesses in his 1992 book The American Religion, but his insights can be applied to many more aspects of our culture and political life.
The influence of Revelation always has been out of all proportion to its literary strength or spiritual value. Though it has affected the strongest poets, from Dante and Spenser through Milton on to Blake and Shelly, it also has enthralled the quacks and cranks of all ages down to the present moment in America. A lurid and inhumane work, very poorly composed in the original, the Apocalypse of St. John was rightly called one of the “nightmares of anxiety and triumph” by the late Northrup Frye. It is a nightmare of a book: without wisdom, goodness, kindness, or affection of any kind. D.H. Lawrence judged it pungently: “The Apocalypse does not worship power. It wants to murder the powerful, to seize power itself, the weakling.” (Sounds like power-worship to me.)
Now here is the remarkable thing about this song by Estil Ball, for whom the phrase “high, lonesome sound” seems specially made: it takes its lines more or less directly from Revelations, that work “without wisdom, goodness, kindness, or affection of any kind” and with nothing other than Ball’s voice turns it into a lament, rather than a nightmare and fantasy of power. The song starkly reveals how pitiless and terrifying is this Yaweh, just as inscrutably cruel as the killer from the murder ballad “Pretty Polly”, another tune Ball does quite beautifully on Southern Journey. Even in its lines which promise “I’ll be carried home by Jesus, and forever with him be”, or the description of the judgment undergone by those marked by the beast, we do not feel happy, joyful, or triumphant at the prospect. This stands in direct contrast with the vengeful tradition of American millennialism, expressed by the songs I mentioned earlier. “No Depression in Heaven” straightforwardly presents religious consolation as the opium of the people, detailing all the bad things that won’t be there waiting when you die. Even more fearsomely, Rosetta Tharpe makes a list of things that will “soon be over” when this Earth perishes, which includes not only the lamentable to a Christian, such as “drinking” but also praying, singing, and anything else a mortal might find comfort in, all while singing and playing guitar as if it were the happiest day she ever had.