Home Worship Planning History of Hymns History of Hymns: 'Nobody Knows the Trouble I See'

History of Hymns: 'Nobody Knows the Trouble I See'

By C. Michael Hawn

“Nobody Knows the Trouble I See”
African American Spiritual
Songs of Zion, 170 and 171
The United Methodist Hymnal, 520

Nobody knows the trouble I see,
nobody knows but Jesus;
oh, nobody knows the trouble I see,
glory hallelujah!

Sometimes I’m up,
sometimes I’m down,
Oh, yes, Lord!
Sometimes I’m almost to the ground,
Oh, yes, Lord!

African American scholar and sociologist W.E.B. DuBois (1868–1963) quotes the first two musical measures (without text) of “Nobody knows the trouble” at the beginning of the opening chapter, “On Our Spiritual Strivings,” in his famous book, The Souls of Black Folk (1903). In this chapter, he poses an unasked question that, though never posed aloud, is on the tips of the tongues of even well-meaning and compassionate people: “How does it feel to be a problem?” (DuBois, 1903, p. 15) This unasked, rhetorical question can only be answered in what DuBois has called “The Sorrow Songs.” “Nobody knows the trouble” is, perhaps, at the head of the list.

The following account from an enslaved woman captures this sorrow:

Dear husband, I want you to buy me as soon as possible, for it you do not get me somebody else will. . . Dear husband, you [know] not the trouble I see . . . It is said Master is in want of money. If so, I know not what time he may sell me, and then all my bright hops of the futer are blasted, for there has ben on bright hope to cheer me in all my troubles, that is to be with you—for if I thought I shoul never see you this earth would have no charms for me. Do all you can for me, witch I have no doubt you will. Your affectionate wife, Harriet Newby [All spellings are as they appear in the original.] (Guenther, 2016, p. 116; cited in Johnson and Smith, 1998, p. 420).

Sources and Variations (an introduction)

The appearance of this spiritual soon after the Civil War in Slave Songs of the United States (New York, 1867), the first collection of folk songs published in the United States, attests to its prevalence among members of the antebellum enslaved community. “Nobody Knows the Trouble I’ve Had” (no. 74; p. 55) was one of the songs collected by northern abolitionists William Francis Allen, Charles Pickard Ware, and Lucy McKim Garrison off the coast of South Carolina in the Carolina Sea Islands between 1862–1865 during the Civil War. A note at the bottom of the page states, “This song was a favorite in the colored schools of Charleston in 1865; it has since that time spread to the Sea Islands, where it is now sung with the variations noted above.”

The general arc of the spiritual as we now know it is apparent in the following facsimile with some notable exceptions:

Nobody Knows 72px

Three aspects immediately stand out to those who know this spiritual today: the first is that the alternate text to the first line is “I see” rather than “I’ve had.” The second is that the refrain begins with a rising perfect fourth rather than the falling major sixth in current hymnals. The third is the inclusion of stanzas unfamiliar to modern singers. Referring to the text of the spiritual’s incipit (first line), J.B.T. Marsh, the editor of The Story of the Jubilee Singers with Their Songs (London, 1876), indicates that the version used by the Fisk Singers was “I see.” African American editor John Wesley Work (II) (?1872–1925) repeated this version in his New Jubilee Songs, as Sung by the Fisk Jubilee Singers (Nashville: Fisk University, 1902) as the first spiritual in the collection. Given the prominence of the Singers’ performances during the last quarter of the nineteenth century, it is likely that their rendition solidified their version of the opening line.

Concerning the initial interval of a rising fourth as noted in Slave Songs (1867), the version sung by the Fisk Jubilee Singers as printed in Marsh’s collection begins with a rising minor third.

Nobody Knows Fisk 72px

The entire song is in a minor pentatonic scale (C, Eb, F, G, Bb) except for a single D at the conclusion of the refrain. This contrasts with the major pentatonic scale (Bb, C, D, F, G) in Slave Songs.

The stanzas recorded by Marsh and Work (II) in their 1876 and 1902 collections, respectively, indicate that the Fisk Singers used a familiar formula that implored, in successive stanzas, spiritual family members (Brothers, Sisters, Mothers, and Preachers) to “pray for me” during the stanzas. Rather than standardizing the spiritual as we now know it, the Fisk Singers expanded the options. John Wesley Work (II) included two versions of the stanzas (without music) in Folk Song of the American Negro (Nashville, 1915). One can easily trace elements of both versions back to Slave Songs (1967).

Version 1 (p. 50):

Mother, won’t you pray for me;
Mother, won’t you pray for me;
Mother, won’t you pray for me;
And help me to drive old Satan away.

Preacher, won’t you pray for me;
Preacher, won’t you pray for me;
Preacher, won’t you pray for me;
And help me to drive old Satan away.

Version 2 (pp. 57–58):

Sometimes I’m up,
Sometimes I’m down,
Oh, yes, Lord.
Sometimes I’m level with the ground.
Oh, yes, Lord.

If you get there before I do,
Oh, yes, Lord.
Tell all-a-my friends I’m coming, too,
Oh, yes, Lord.

Concerning the appearance of the falling major sixth in the opening measure of the spiritual, this version may have first appeared in print in Hampton and Its Students with Fifty Cabin and Plantation Songs (New York, 1874), p. 181, arranged by Hampton’s choral director Thomas P. Fenner (1829–1912). Titled “Nobody knows de trouble I’ve Seen,” an introduction to the song may have been taken from Slave Songs (1867). The music, however, is significantly different, appearing in a four-part quartet version that was standardized during the dissemination of spirituals through performances by students from Black educational institutions in the south—including Fisk University (Tennessee), Hampton Institute (Virginia), and Tuskegee Institute (Alabama)—during the last quarter of the nineteenth century. The music of the Hampton Institute version is the most like the versions in current hymnals. (For this version, see https://archive.org/details/hamptonanditsst00fenngoog/page/n189/mode/2up.) W.E.B. DuBois incorporates the falling major sixth into his excerpt in his 1903 book.

Thomas P. Fenner, a white New England musician for the Union army, came to Hampton in 1872. He brought classical music training and sympathetic insight to the presentation of spirituals on the page and in performance:

The slave music of the South presents a field for research and study very extensive and rich, and one which has been scarcely more than entered upon. There are evidently, I think, two legitimate methods of treating this music: either to render it in its absolute, rude simplicity, or to develop it without destroying its original characteristics; the only proper field for such development being in the harmony. (Fenner, 1874, Preface)

Fenner was aware of African American performance practice of the time: “the swaying of the body; the rhythmical stamping of the feet; and all the wild enthusiasm of the negro campmeeting.” However, these practices “evidently can not be transported to the boards of a public performance.” He attempted to balance his approach, leaving “the most characteristic of the songs. . . entirely or nearly untouched.” On other songs, Fenner attempted an “improvement” which “careful[ly] bring[s] out. . . the various parts. . . making more than has ever yet been made out of this slave music.”

It is likely that “Nobody knows the trouble” was one of the spirituals that Fenner heavily arranged. His version must have been successful. The spiritual was included in a concert at Princeton University in 1874, a performance on the heels of one by The Fisk Jubilee Singers in 1873 at Princeton’s Second Presbyterian Church (Blanton, Hampton Singers, n.p.). Though the audience was “unusually attentive and responsive” and the performers “exceedingly earnest,” racial prejudice was evident in reviews such as “no slave. . . can favorably compare with that of the most talented operative singing of the day in rendering many of the popular songs of the South” (Armstrong, 2021, n.p.). Contemporary accounts of the concerts did not acknowledge the freed status of the student singers, most of whom were previously enslaved. They were still referenced as “slaves.” Fenner’s approach to arranging the spirituals appears to have been influential. An early recording from Alabama’s Tuskegee Institute Singers (1916) reflects the four-part harmonized style of singing (https://archive.org/details/78_nobody-knows-the-trouble-i-see_tuskegee-institute-singers_gbia0000393b/Nobody+Knows+The+Trouble+I+See+-+Tuskegee+Institute+Singers-restored.flac).

Songs of Zion (Nashville, 1981) includes two versions of the spiritual—a simplified four-part harmonized rendition with the falling major sixth (no. 170) and an unaccompanied melody line of the rising minor third tune found in the early Fisk Jubilee Singers’ publications. The Episcopal collection Lift Every Voice and Sing II (1993) uses the past tense in the first line of the refrain— “Trouble I’ve Seen”—and provides a straightforward four-part harmonization with two stanzas:

Sometimes I’m up, sometimes I’m down, Oh, yes, Lord,
Sometimes I’m almost to the ground, Oh, yes, Lord.

Although you see me going ‘long so, Oh, yes, Lord,
I have my troubles here below, Oh, yes, Lord.

William Farley Smith (1941–1997) harmonizes the spiritual in The United Methodist Hymnal (no. 520) in a chromatic choral style and ascribes the tune name DUBOIS. He includes a third stanza (retained from the first version in Songs of Zion) in addition to those above:

What makes old Satan hate me so? Oh, yes, Lord!
Cause he got me once and let me go, Oh, yes, Lord!

Key Words: Glory Hallelu and Trouble

Two aspects of this spiritual remain. The first is the appearance of “Glory hallelu” or “Glory hallelujah” at the conclusion of the refrain. How does this exuberant affirmation fit into one of the “Sorrow Songs”? John Wesley Work (II) approaches the issue this way:

A most natural consequence of having faith is having joy. . . Truly, clouds sometimes overcast the skies, but these are only incidents in the life of faith. The believer can smile through tears and shout Hallelujah! in a minor strain. So, for every sorrow song like “Nobody Knows the Trouble I See,” there are many of those blasts of joy, like “Great Camp Meeting, “Shout All Over “God’s Heaven,” and “Golden Slippers. The Negro has the habit of being happy (Work, 1915, p. 128).

A difficulty with this quotation, taken at face value, is the possible perpetuation of the myth of the happily enslaved Black on the plantation. African American Civil Rights leader and theologian Howard Thurman (1899–1981) approached the juxtaposition of sorrow and joy this way:

These songs were rightfully called “Sorrow Songs.” They were born in tears and suffering greater than any formula of expression. And yet the authentic note of triumph in God rings out trumpet-tongued:

Oh, nobody knows the trouble I’ve seen;
Glory, hallelujah!

There is something bold, audacious, unconquerable here:

Sometimes I’m up, sometimes I’m down,
Oh, yes, Lord,
Sometimes I’m almost to de grou’,
Oh, yes, Lord,
Oh, nobody knows the trouble I’ve seen;
Glory, hallelujah! (Thurman, 1975, pp. 31–32)

While not addressing this spiritual directly, W.E.B. DuBois perhaps is the most eloquent on this subject:

Through all the sorrow of the Sorrow Songs there breathes a hope—a faith in the ultimate justice of things. The minor cadences of despair change often to triumph and calm confidence. Sometimes it is faith in life, sometimes a faith in death, sometimes assurance of boundless justice in some fair world beyond. But whatever it is, the meaning is always clear: that sometime, somewhere, men will judge men by their souls and not by their skins (Dubois, 1903, p. 189).

But, what about “trouble”? “Trouble” is a prevalent trope in the spirituals. In addition to “Nobody knows the trouble,” other spirituals include “The trouble[s] of the world,” “This is a sin-tryin’ world—In trouble,” “This old-time religion” (“It [religion] is good when you are in trouble”), and “Wade in the water” (“God’s a-gonna trouble the water.”). These and other mentions of the word indicate that sin [and Satan] is the source of trouble and that it will not last forever. “Trouble” took an ironic twist when the late Civil Rights activist and United States Representative John R. Lewis (1940–2020) reclaimed the word as a positive force for social change in a speech to the 2019 Freshman Convocation at Georgia State University:

When I was growing up, I’d ask my mother, my father, my grandparents, my great-grandparents, my teachers, about the signs that I saw, saying “white men,” “colored men,” “white women,” and “colored women.” They would say, “boy, that’s the way it is. Don’t get in the way and don’t get in trouble.” But when I was 15 years old, in 1955, I heard of Rosa Parks. I heard the words of Martin Luther King, Jr. on the radio. The action of Rosa Parks and the words of Martin Luther King, Jr. inspired me to find a way to get in the way. And I got in the way. And I got in trouble, “good trouble.” (Lewis, 2019, n.p.)

Causing “good trouble” in the face of oppressive, unjust, and racist trouble perpetrated by the systemic sin may be a way to appreciate the undaunted spirit represented in “Glory Hallelujah!”


William Francis Allen, Charles Pickard Ware, and Lucy McKim Garrison, Slave Songs of the United States (New York: A. Simpson, 1867).

April C. Armstrong, “Songs of the Freed: The Hampton and Jubilee Singers at Princeton,” Mudd Manuscript Library Blog (posted February 3, 2021), https://blogs.princeton.edu/mudd/2021/02/songs-of-the-freed-the-hampton-and-jubilee-singers-at-princeton/ (accessed August 8, 2022).

Adrianne M. Blanton, “Hampton Singers,” Black Music Scholar: https://blackmusicscholar.com/hampton-singers (accessed August 8, 2022).

Thomas P. Fenner, Fifty Cabin and Plantation Songs (New York: G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 1874)

Elaine Guenther, In Their Own Words: Slave Life and the Power of the Spirituals (St. Louis: MorningStar Publishers, 2016).

Charles Johnson and Patricia Smith, Africans in America: America’s Journey through Slavery (San Diego: Harcourt Brace & Company, 1998).

John R. Lewis, Speech to Freshman Class, Georgia State University (August 25, 2019): https://provost.gsu.edu/files/2020/07/john-lewis-transcription-bt.pdf (accessed August 8, 2022).

Howard Thurman, Deep River and The Negro Spiritual Speaks of Life and Death (Richmond, IN: United Friends Press, 1975).

John Wesley Work (II), Folk Song of the American Negro (Nashville: Fisk University Press, 1915).

J. Richard Watson, Carlton R. Young, and Eileen Guenther, “Nobody Knows the Trouble I See,” The Canterbury Dictionary of Hymnology. Canterbury Press, http://www.hymnology.co.uk/n/nobody-knows-the-trouble-i-see (accessed August 8, 2022).

C. Michael Hawn, D.M.A., F.H.S., is University Distinguished Professor Emeritus of Church Music and Adjunct Professor, and Director, Doctor of Pastoral Music Program at Perkins School of Theology, Southern Methodist University.

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