The Long and Fascinating History of 'Good Shepherd'

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The Long and Fascinating History of 'Good Shepherd'

Post by BettyLouSpence »

Perhaps the most well known version of 'Good Shepherd' is Jefferson Airplane's arrangement of this traditional American folk song, from their 1969 album Volunteers:

It's oddly mellow and spiritual in contrast to the other material on this politically-charged album, especially 'Volunteers' and 'We Can Be Together'. Even alongside 'Wooden Ships', it sounds much folkier.

It's also much older.

This song can be traced back to the very early 19th century, where it got its start as a hymn weitten by Reverend John Adam Granade, a Methodist preacher. It would wind through much of the 1800s as a hymn, and entered the African American community, the song evolving as the gospel blues developed.

It was from this gospel blues version that the black folk musician Jimmie Strothers learned the song, and in 1936, while serving time at the Virginia State Prison Farm for killing his wife, the American ethnomusicologist Alan Lomax recorded Strothers performing this song (along with 12 others). It is his rendition of the song - called 'Blood Strained Banders' - that forms the basis of the Jefferson Airplane arrangement.

Now, I must note here that Jorma Kaukonen, the Airplane's lead guitarist, loves playing the blues. He has amassed a huge repertoire of blues tunes in his decades as a musician, and his love for the genre can be traced back to his early club days as he learned countless songs from blues masters such as the Rev. Gary Davis. He learned the Good Shepherd song from a folk singer named Roger Perkins, who himself had first heard it from... you guessed it! Jimmie Strothers' 1936 'Blood Strained Banders' recording.

Jorma would perform this song live alongside other blues numbers during his tenure with the Airplane, and in 1969 he had further refined his rendition of what he called Good Shepherd, his showcase track on Volunteers.

Bonus - Jorma and Airplane bassist Jack Cassady, as Hot Tuna, performing Good Shepherd acoustically in 2011:
"No, Vico! You'd make a marvelous second husband—but you're too much of a luxury for a poor girl's first venture!" ~ Kitty Flanders in Children of Divorce (1927)

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Re: The Long and Fascinating History of 'Good Shepherd'

Post by donnie »

I really like the folky sound of the album version. And what an interesting history behind this song.

I like the Hot Tuna one even better. Some *really* beautiful acoustic and vocal work there. That's a classic. Thanks for posting these!

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