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Daniel & The Sacred Harp

[Peter Viney]  Notes by Peter Viney

Copyright © Peter Viney 1999

"Daniel & The Sacred Harp"
Written by Robbie Robertson
From "Stage Fright" (1970)

When my elder son was born the midwife said, “Daniel? Like the song?”
“I hadn’t really thought about it,” I replied, “Maybe it is. It was always a favourite.”
Daniel is leaving tonight on a plane …
she sang.
“What? No! No way! Not the Elton John song!” 1

Daniel & The Sacred Harp is one of The Band’s greatest songs, but like Jupiter Hollow, another all time great, it has never been graced by a live performance. Well, there’s a Rick Danko tape where he sings two lines between numbers, but that’s it. I would place it up there with The Weight and King Harvest and Acadian Driftwood.

The Biblical prophet Daniel featured in a series of jokes when I was at school. These were encapsulated in a series of verses, in the same school of oral literary tradition as ‘Eskimo Nell’ and ‘Twas On The Good Ship Venus”:
Daniel, come forth! said the King.
But Daniel came fifth and won a silver tea pot in the raffle

I'll miss the rest which is obscene.

This Daniel isn’t the Biblical prophet from the lion’s den either, but the name sounds solidly Biblical. There are other famous Daniels from Daniel Defoe to Daniel Boone, but the setting of the song places us in an Old Testament landscape.

The song is based on the Faust story, in its American incarnation, Robert Johnson’s blues, where the artist trades his soul for the ability to play. This has been echoed in later songs, like Charlie Daniels' The Devil Went Down to Georgia, and there are traces in Kevin Doherty’s Don’t Wait from Jubilation.

Sleeve note to “Anthology 1”
As an evocation of a vanishing America that was rooted in faith’s certainties, this was just about unequalled.

Rob Bowman
(It) is another allegory a la The Weight and as such, turns once more to religious allusion. The story of selling one’s soul is as old as the hills … Levon plays the part of the narrator while Richard assumes the role of Daniel.

Greil Marcus traced the Robert Johnson story in Mystery Train.

Greil Marcus
When he first appeared, Robert couldn’t play the guitar to save his life, Son House told Pete Welding; Johnson hung out with the older bluesmen, pestering them for a chance to try his hand, and after a time he went away. It was months later on a Saturday night, when they saw him again, still looking to be heard. They tried to put him off, but he persisted; finally they let him play for a lull and left him alone with the tables and chairs. Outside, taking the air, Son House and the others heard a loud, devastating music of a brilliance and a purity beyond anything in the memory of Mississippi. Johnson had nothing more to learn from them.
“He sold his soul to the devil to play like that,” House told Welding.

Roy Carr
The blues is rich in magic and superstition … most potent of all is the myth of the crossroads. A meeting at midnight with a dark and sinister man who bestows musical talent for a believer’s lifetime - at the cost of their soul.

Robert Johnson
Early this morning
He knocked upon my door
and I said, Hello Satan
I believe it’s time to go

Tony Russell
The devil’s music has, notoriously, always been the blues.
Almost everything written about Johnson mentions this story of dealing with the devil. What few of the accounts add is that similar stories were told about numerous other blues guitarists. Johnson never refers to it himself, even in songs that mention crossroads (Crossroads Blues) and Satan (Me & The Devil ). He does refer to magic devices like the mojo and hot foot powder, and he may have been as superstitious as any other Black Mississippian of his day, but when it came to his music, we can guess that the only inspiration he cared to acknowledge was his own.
… Alternatively, the “devil” that Johnson introduces … may be an entity similar to the blues in Buddy Guy’s The First Time I Met The Blues- personifying an abstract notion such as trouble or fear of death.

Given that Marcus is tracing a theme through Robert Johnson, The Band, Elvis, Sly Stone and Randy Newman 8 it’s odd that he doesn’t explicitly embrace Daniel & The Sacred Harp in his theme. Marcus goes on to state the possibility that Johnson really did sell … or try to sell … his soul for the ability to play. The place where you met the Devil was at the crossroads at midnight. Barney Hoskyns picked up the theme, and was able to quote Robertson at length. (He failed to note for the superstitious that Robertson’s name is Robert Johnson with the John missing.) Hoskyns brings in guitarist Roy Buchanan, one time member of Hawkins’ Hawks.

Robbie Robertson (quoted by Barney Hoskyns)
(Buchanan) was only three or four years older than me, but he’d been around quite a bit for his age. He told me a lot of stories, crazy stories about how he was half-wolf, half man. They were like the stories you heard about Robert Johnson selling his soul to the devil. We know these are just silly stories, but at the same time they’re fascinating American mythology. Like we’d be sitting in a room playing together and I’d ask Buchanan how he’d figured out some lick and he’d say, “Well, I can’t really tell you,” clearly implying that he, too, had made some sort of pact. Years later, it became obvious he was playing a game with me.

Hoskyns says that Robbie’s own playing also gave rise to speculation that he’d entered some diabolical pact.

Robbie Robertson (quoted by Barney Hoskyns)
I was so obsessed that I was stealing everything in sight. From Fred Carter, Roy Buchanan, the Howlin’ Wolf records. I came a long way in a short time, and people used to kid me, saying, “What is it with this guy? Did he sell his soul?"
Years later I wrote Daniel & The Sacred Harp and it was based on this whole mythology.

Later on, Hoskyns knocks the song:

Barney Hoskyns
Equally stilted, if truth be told, was Daniel & The Sacred Harp, Robbie’s quasi-Applachian version of the Robert Johnson myth that so entranced him as a neophyte bluesman. “I guess it’s about greed in the context of Christian mythology,” Robertson has said, “At the time I was very into Sacred Harp shape-note singing, so I had that in the back of my mind.”
In the song a man comes into the possession of a famous harp that gives him divine power but robs him of his soul in the process. As with Long Black Veil the song was too studiedly spooky to be truly affecting. Not even the incorporation of Rick’s fiddle and Garth’s old time pump organ, or the different vocal roles of Levon and Richard could lend it half the inspiration that had gone into Rockin’ Chair.

Robbie has said it’s based on Sacred Harp shape-note singing. Shape-notes are do-re-mi-fa-sol-la-ti notated by different shapes of the note head. 12 It is a simplified system of musical notation, and one that could be used by people who could not understand traditional notation. Scott Tribble referred me to the shape-note singing website, and these extracts not only explain it, but place it deep in a Southern tradition.

Jim Carnes
The first time through on each tune, it is customary to "sing the notes", calling their shapes by the ancient syllables fa, sol, la, and mi. Originally used as a learning device, this solmization produces a kind of pure vocal music, unshackled by poetry and theology. Though most Sacred Harp singers know these tunes by heart, they treasure the fa-sol-la's as part of their identity. When illiteracy, musical and otherwise, proved a hindrance, enterprising sing-masters set about to improve instruction, combining the old European practice of solmization, or syllable singing, with various systems of "patent" notation.

The name "Sacred Harp" tradition is based on the most popular compilation, B.F. White's The Sacred Harp published in 1844.

Jim Carnes
By virtue of its comprehensiveness and of White's wide personal influence, this songbook eclipsed all others in the South and earned a place of honor in most homes second only to that of the Bible. The Sacred Harp took root in the Southern soil sustained it through the storm of the Civil War and the drought of the the Reconstruction. A number of well-organized singing conventions from this period and earlier still meet annually.

Keith Willard
Books such as Kentucky Harmony, Missouri Harmony, Southern Harmony, and Sacred Harp were published in four shape notation and used widely by a people isolated from the tyranny of citified "experts". It was in the south where the marriage of the New England singing school music forms to the oral Celtic folk tune heritage was completed and the folk-hymn was born. It was here that the singing school found a permanent home in the rural areas of the Appalachians and the Piedmont.

There are two examples of the form on the Smithsonian Anthology of American Folk Music, both by The Alabama Sacred Harp Singers from 1928. The Smithsonian set is supposed to have influenced Dylan. Both the Sacred Harp songs on the set (Rocky Road, Present Joys) are accompanied by reed organ, and are definitely an acquired taste. Harry Smith's famous notes include:

Harry Smith
Other good groups are Daniels-Deason Sacred Harp (Columbia, 1928)

Not just Dylan then.

Robbie has used the words 'sacred harp' but this harp is a physical one. What kind of harp is it? To Levon, or James Cotton or Sonny Boy Williamson a harp is a a mouth-harp, or harmonica. To me this harp is definitely the kind angels play, with strings. I even wonder if Richard’s performance as Daniel might have been in Robbie’s mind when he wrote Fallen Angel. 17 If Robbie was said to have made a pact to achieve his guitar playing brilliance, then what about Richard’s voice? Which refers us to the Sacred Harp tradition again. I suspect the three meanings of harp are a small joke, with a bow to the blues myth in one of the meanings. The tune is not blues. The link to Johnson is thematic, not musical. Musically, Robertson was deliberately trying to get an Appalachian sound.

There are two distinct voices. Levon is the narrator, and Richard is Daniel. Levon's voice seems to be the choice whenever there was a biblical connection from I pulled into Nazareth, to The Saga of Pepote Rouge to Gimmee A Stone from Largo.

The song starts off with what seems to be a chorus:

Daniel, Daniel and the sacred harp
dancing through the clover
Daniel, Daniel would you mind?
If I look it over.

But a chorus appears at regular intervals through a song. This only appears twice, once at the very beginning and once at the very end. It's a framing device rather than a chorus. Unusual.

dancing through the clover is an image that conjures up “being in the clover” - everything’s going great for you, you’re surrounded by abundance. And there’s Daniel dancing through the middle of it.

The narrator is not distanced. He’s a neighbour of Daniel’s, living in the same time and space.

I heard of this sacred harp years ago,
back in my home town
But I sure never thought
Old Daniel'd be the one
to come and bring it around

The “old” is the affectionate use. Somehow Daniel seems young. We know the harp is legendary.

Tell me Daniel how the harp
Came into your possession?
Are you one of the chosen few
Who will march in the procession?

This previews the fact that we learn in the next verse. The harp, like religious emblems over the ages, can’t be touched or handled by just anyone. There’s a select priesthood, or an “elect” or "the saved" who can bear the harp. “chosen few” will work for fundamentalist Christianity, Judaism, Mormonism or Jehovah’s Witnesses. I don’t believe it’s any of them specifically (even though “chosen few” sounds close to “chosen people”.) The procession might be a straightforward religious ceremony, or it might be a march at judgement day. But we already begin to wonder if Daniel is qualified to be there.

In one of The Band’s most perfect transitions between roles in a song, Levon sings 18 :

And Daniel said …

Which is immediately made flesh by Richard coming in as Daniel 19:

The sacred harp was handed down
From father unto son
And me not bein’ related
I could never be the one

The juxtaposition between the high-faluttin’ unto and the coloquialand me not bein’ related is an example of Robbie’s connecting of Bible times with mythical America. So the harp-bearer or harpist is a hereditary role. It’s exclusive, and Daniel is excluded. But this is where the trouble begins.

So I saved up all my silver
And I gave it to a man
Who said he could deliver the harp
right into my hand

Daniel’s going to cheat. The saved up silver is his accumulated wealth - the ability he has gained through hard work and experience. He’s willing to trade this for the “harp”. And he gives his accumulation of knowledge and experience to a man who makes promises. The man can put that harp, that success, right into the singer’s hand. The man has to be Albert Grossman, the Band and Dylan’s manager. The Band were trading their hard-won abilities and knowledge for the promise of great success. Is this subliminal or deliberate?

Three years I waited patiently
till he returned with the harp
from the Sea of Gallilee

The success takes three years to arrive (er …could that be 1968 to 1970? Or 1967 to 1969? The point’s the same.). And the Biblical setting is confirmed, the harp was found at the Sea of Gallilee. Robertson's sources often turn out to be genuinely researched, and I had to look at a bible just to see if there was any association between the prophet Daniel and a harp. I can only remember three stories about Daniel. There's the lion's den, the writing on the wall, and the burning fiery furnace. Check. No, Daniel had charmed the lion by prayer not by musicianship. Cancel that thought out. Leave the writing on the wall to Paul Simon. But then turn to the fiery furnace story. King Nebuchadnezzar in Babylon, beloved as he is in spelling contests, set up a mighty golden image that he wanted people to worship. He commanded the people:

That at what time ye hear the sound of the cornet, flute, harp, sackbut, psaltery, dulcimer and all kinds of musick, ye fall down and worship the golden image that Nebuchadnezzar, the King, has set up. 20

In other words the sound of the music is connected to the worship of a golden image. An image of wealth, not of soul.21 The golden image comes in To Kingdom Come from Big Pink too: I see a golden calf pointing back at me. Incidentally the reason I remembered that story at all was the old spiritual about Meshack, Shadrach and Abendego (who were the three guys who got tossed into the fiery furnace).

The man is making good his promise when he returns with the harp, but there’s a necessary price:

He said there is one more thing I must ask
But not of personal greed
But I wouldn't listen
I just grabbed the harp
And said 'Take what you may need.'

Uh-oh. Bad mistake.

But one that many singers have made when signing deals. And note the mealey-mouthed but not of personal greed …

It never is.

It's the promotion expenses, the loan for equipment, the 10% reduction in royalties from the record company to cover "breakages" (a practice dating back to shellac 78s and surviving via unbreakable 33s to CDs), the burgers and fries on January 25th 1967 at the truck stop that the manager paid for; and hey, it costs money to run an office, the phone bills, the press ads, the payola, the secretary's new coffee cup, the legal fees for this contract, and the price of the pen you used to sign it. That's the ten cents on page 382. And it's going to take Daniel some time to find out what the deal is. Though we, the listeners, will have guessed.

It's time for an instrumental section, as if Daniel is joyfully testing his new powers. In similar stories, like the later The Devil Went Down to Georgia 23 an instrumental break made a showpiece for virtuoso show-off playing to demonstrate the abilities. Not here. It just continues the stately melody.

Now Daniel looked quite satisfied
And the harp it seemed to glow
But the price that Daniel had really paid
He did not even know

We get a hint that the harp has mystical powers. The narrator reiterates that Daniel doesn't know exactly what the price would be, but we soon discover that Daniel has guessed that there will be a price.

Back to his brother
He took his troubled mind
And he said, 'Dear brother, I'm in a bind.'
But his brother would not hear his tale,
He said, 'Oh, Daniel's going to land in jail'

Whether brother means sibling, or is more general, he isn't any help. I'm in a bind is wordplay too. In a bind means have a problem, but the literal meaning is bound to something, here bound to a contract. The brother has guessed that Daniel's in trouble, but takes it lightly, assuming that any come-uppance will in this world.

So to his father Daniel did run
And he said, 'Of, father, what have I done?'
He said, 'Son you've given in,
You know you won your harp
but you're lost in sin.'

In the landscape this song is inhabiting, I assume that the appeal is to a heavenly father, to God, as much as to his dad. Having done his deal with the dark side, help will not be forthcoming from the power of the force, I mean God. Note: must stop watching Star Wars trailers.

The mood of the music changes, becoming more wistful.

Then Daniel took the harp and went high on the hill
And he blew across the meadow like a whippoorwill
He played out his heart just the time to pass
But when he looked to the ground
He noticed no shadow did he cast

A whippoorwill is a distinctively American bird. It's confined to the East side and Canada. It is seldom seen, though often heard near dusk or dawn. Yet again, Robertson links Biblical Palestine to America. There are two aspects of the diabolical pact here. First, Daniel was playing out his heart just for time to pass. The gift might be eternal life in these pacts, though the result is emptiness. Compare Robertson's fascination with imposed immortality in Rockin' Chair:

Hear the sound Willie boy, the Flyin' Dutchman's on the reef
And it's my belief, we've used up all our time

The ship, 'The Flying Dutchman', was condemned to sail around The Cape of Good Hope until the end of time, because the Captain had cursed God in a storm. If it's on the reef, time has come to an end. 27

Second, he cast no shadow. This is common to similar myths. In the way that vampires don't appear in mirrors, those who have sold their souls cast no shadows. This is the punch line, and the sombre tone of the music lets us know that Daniel has realised the price is his soul.

We get that opening verse again, then mournful pump organ plays it out.

Levon Helm
It was a dark album, and an accurate reflection of our group’s collective psychic weather. Daniel & The Sacred Harp was about selling your soul for music; Stage Fright was about the terror of performing; The Shape I’m In was about desperation; The Rumor was about paranoia.

The idea of selling your soul for music must have applied to Robertson’s view of The Band’s position in 1970. Levon’s quote above makes that apparent. Scott Tribble's article Do You Feel What I Feel? traces the marketing of The Band as an entity.

Scott Tribble
While intitially not a part of the campaign that had influenced such conservative readings of their music, the Band members ultimately became a part of the effort as they undoubtedly recognized the rewards of doing so. The Band members were musicians, first and foremost, but Robertson in particular was quite astute in terms of reading the market … Having seen the commercial success the image had bred thus far and undoubtedly recognizing the potential for future financial windfall, Robertson and the other Band members emerged from their self-imposed seclusion to further their Capitol-constructed image.

If we follow Scott Tribble's thesis, that the conservative image of The Band was a record company construct (though I'd place the onus on Albert Grossman, not Capitol Records), how bitter it must have been for Robertson, more than anyone, to be playing the cowboy? That's selling your soul for the music. But any myth needs some substance, and The Band's sartorial style, applause for their families as well as their musical taste was inherently conservative. This might be one of the factors in the marked divergence between The Band's musical style and Robertson's musical style in the nineties.

Ragtime Wille e-mailed me an interesting interpretation, which takes us back to Sacred Harp singing:

Ragtime Willie
A bit of amateur psychology: what songwriter Robertson wants is the ability to sing. His voice can be effective in a few selected songs, but he knows that is the opposite to a beautiful sound. He admires gospel singers like The Staples. The sacred harp could be a metaphor for the ability to sing loud and clear and beautifully, OR it points to the Band's longing for immediate success.

Side two of Stage Fright is as fine as the first two albums, even though it was mistakenly held to be a prime example of the “difficult third album syndrome.” John Bauldie pointed this out when he reviewed the re-release for Q. All four songs of disquiet that Levon mentions are on side two.

The theme falls over into the next song, Stage Fright. Danko sings:

And for the price the poor boy has paid
he gets to sing just like a bird

This brings me back to my earlier point; that Richard's voice might have been the "sacred harp", the gift that cost the soul. Daniel played the sacred harp like a whippoorwill.

According to Hidecki Watanebe's web site the instrumentation is:

Levon Helm - lead vocal, 12 string acoustic guitar
Richard Manuel - lead vocal, drums
Rick Danko - acoustic bass, violin
Robbie Robertson - electric guitar, autoharp
Garth Hudson - Lowrey organ

I think that Garth is playing a pump organ (as others have said). Rick Danko is playing fretless bass, but while on the 1994 DCC Gold remaster and Toshiba-EMI 1998 remaster it sounds as if it could be acoustic as Hidecki says, the original LP sounds chunkier (surprisingly), more like a fretless electric.

The pump organ makes it sound like an outdoor revival meeting, and begins and ends the song on its own. The instrumentation is largely acoustic, which reminds me of Jubilation.

Why wasn’t the song ever performed live? It would have meant Rick playing a sustained fiddle part, and someone else playing bass (it has a great Rick bass part). Levon could have, which would have placed Richard on drums live. I don’t think he drummed on his lead vocals on stage. Levon would have had to sing lead and play bass - unprecedented on live shows, and we'd lose the second guitar. Robbie would have had to choose between guitar and autoharp. Garth would have had to synthesize the pump organ part - possible by 1975, but impossible in 1970. It wasn’t a practical proposition.


Studio album:
Three distinct mixes exist. Originally, Glyn Johns and Todd Rundgren did mixes which were mix and matched on the 1970 release. The 1994 Steve Hoffman DCC Gold CD Remaster switched the mixes where possible, using the mix rejected in 1970. Then in 1998, Toshiba-EMI did a further remaster of the 1970 mix. These are remasters and mixes, NOT alternate versions. The differences are for obsessives only.
Stage Fright
(Capitol) 1970, also on US, British and Japanese pressed CDs pre-1998.
Stage Fright
(DCC) 1994
Stage Fright
(Toshiba-EMI) 1998

In spite of its non-existent profile in live shows, it appears on three of the best four compilations.
Anthology Volume 1
To Kingdom Come
The Collection
(Castle 1992)
Across The Great Divide
box set


  1. Elton John, ‘Daniel’ from ‘Don’t Shoot Me, I’m Only The Piano Player’
  2. The Band, “Anthology 1” Capitol, 1978
  3. Rob Bowman, notes to “To Kingdom Come” 2 CD compilation, Capitol
  4. Greil Marcus, “Mystery Train”
  5. Roy Carr, sleeve notes to “Back From The Crossroads” blues CD compilation
  6. Robert Johnson, “Me & The Devil Blues”
  7. Tony Russell, “The Blues Collection #6: Robert Johnson” (Orbis Publishing part work magazine). Russell mentions Peetie Wheatstraw, aka “The Devil’s son-in-law” and “The High Sheriff from Hell.” “The First Time I Met The Blues” was what the PA played directly before The Band came on stage in Vancouver in 1994.
  8. Randy Newman recorded an album called “Faust” in 1995.
  9. Barney Hoskyns, “Across The Great Divide”
  10. Barney Hoskyns, “Across The Great Divide”
  11. Barney Hoskyns, “Across The Great Divide”
  12. Webster’s Third International Dictionary, which illustrates the notes on a stave. I am indebted to Scott Tribble, who refered me to the web site for further information on shape note singing and the Sacred Harp tradition.
  13. Jim Carnes, 'The Tradition', Nashville, 1989. On web site.
  14. Jim Carnes, 'The Tradition', Nashville, 1989. On web site.
  15. Keith Willard, 'A short shape-note singing history' On web site.
  16. "Anthology of American Folk Music", edited by Harry Smith, 1952. Now a 6 CD set issued by Smithsonian Folkways Recordings, 1997. Jeff Place's supplemental notes in 1997 say Smith was wrong in attribution of the songs to the Alabama Sacred Harp Singers, and the group recorded is actually an "Anglo-American congregation".
  17. Robertson has said that the song “Fallen Angel” was already written when Richard died, and was issued as a tribute to Richard, but is not “about” Richard. In one English word, bollocks.
  18. A downside to the Toshiba-EMI 1998 remaster of ‘Stage Fright’. For some reason this transition seems less smooth, perhaps because the voices seem separated more.
  19. Ragtime Willie points out that this is unusual: "This is not done. A song is not an opera." He also points out that they don't do this later, when the quotes from Daniel are shorter.
  20. Book of Daniel, King James Bible, chapter 3 verse 5
  21. The New International Version wisely deletes the sackbut and psaltery and replaces it with "and all kinds of music". Daniel and the Sacred Sackbut doesn't have a ring to it somehow. This is also a point about translation. The new version has "horn, flute, zither, lyre, harp …"
  22. The wordsheets with the various Japanese versions all have 'but not of personal grief' which (a) makes no sense (b) fails to rhyme with 'need'
  23. By Daniels, Edwards, Marshall, Hayward, Crain, DeGregorio. Charlie Daniels Band, 1978.
  24. The transcription on the web is "Old Daniel", but Ragtime Willie agrees with me, it's a cautionary "Oh, Daniel …" or even "Woah! Daniel …"
  25. Inexplicably, the Japanese editions transcribe this as 'won your heart'
  26. EMI-Toshiba revisited. This time it's "like a whipper will." The whippoorwill is a "nocturnal goatsucker" or Caprimulgus vociferus. If it's vociferus it sings loudly!
  27. Thanks to Ragtime Willie (naturally) for reminding me of this connection.
  28. Levon Helm & Stephen Davies, “This Wheel’s On Fire”
  29. Scott Tribble, "Do You Feel What I Feel' © 1998, available on this website.
  30. Ragtime Willie, by e-mail, 3 January 1998

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