Wake Nicodemus

Words & Music by Henry Clay Work

“There are signs in the sky that the darkness is gone….”

Noah Brooks

One of the greatest of all the songs to come out of the war—and now, unfortunately, one of the most forgotten—this was written by the very successful songwriter (and abolitionist) Henry Clay Work. This beautiful song captures the hope and frustration of blacks waiting for the “Good Time Coming,” as foretold by the old slave, Nicodemus, before his death.

The line “Now run and tell Elijah to hurry up Pomp” is confusing without knowing that masters often asserted their ownership by assigning Biblical names like Elijah or Nicodemus or classical Roman names like Pompey or Brutus to new slaves from Africa. So in this song, sung from the point of view of a slave, it’s an urgent command to start rounding up fellow slaves to witness the miraculous reawakening of the slave prophet Nicodemus.

Lyrics

Nicodemus, the slave, was of African birth, and was bought for a bagful of gold;
He was reckon’d as part of the salt of the earth, but he died years ago, very old.
Twas his last sad request—so we laid him away in the trunk of an old hollow tree.
“Wake me up!” was his charge, “at the first break of day—wake me up for the great Jubilee!”

The “Good Time Coming” is almost here….

He was known as a prophet—at least was as wise—for he told of the battles to come;
And he trembled with dread when he rolled up his eyes, and we heeded the shake of his thumb.
Though he clothed us with fear, yet the garments he wore were in patches at elbow and knee;
And he still wears the suit, that he used to of yore, and he sleeps in the old hollow tree!

The “Good Time Coming” is almost here!
It was long, long, long on the way!
Now run and tell Elijah to hurry up Pomp,
And meet us at the gumtree down in the swamp,
To wake Nicodemus today.

‘Twas a long weary night—we were almost in fear that the future was more than he knew;
Twas a long weary night—but the morning is near, and the words of our prophet are true.
There are signs in the sky that the darkness is gone—there are tokens in endless array;
While the storm which had seemingly banished the dawn, only hastens the advent of day.

The “Good Time Coming” is almost here!
It was long, long, long on the way!
Now run and tell Elijah to hurry up Pomp,
And meet us at the gumtree down in the swamp,
To wake Nicodemus today.

Song Excerpt

Listen to “Wake Nicodemus” performed by Harriett D. Foy and Keith Lee Grant of the original New York cast.

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