I'm Goin Up (On the Mountain)
By Jodi Stecher
Appropriation is an important and confusing subject. The story of this song is a great anecdote on the twists and turns of digging up the roots of a song lineage: I learned “I’m goin’ up on the mountain” at Singing Alive 2017, presented as an Appalachian bluegrass song, and being sang as an ode to our inner transformation. Years later, when I wanted to teach it at my choir, I did some cursory digging and the main thing that came up was this image of an old white guy on the cover of a CD that came out in 2000. He says the song is “traditional”. I made the erroneous assumption that the song must have roots in enslaved peoples’ songs, given the lyrics, “I’m goin’ up on the mountain, aint comin’ down till mornin’, / aint comin’ down in chains…” Well, some of the singers present called me out and said, “you think its an old spiritual but you’re not sure??” As in: not good enough. So I dug way harder! Pouring over lists of old spirituals, old bluegrass songs and old time songs, nothing was coming up about this song. The road seemed to end at Jody Stecher, the old guy in the 2000 CD. But looking further into that Album, I found that it was a re-release of a 1977 LP, and on the original cover, Jody was wearing a brightly colored cap that definitely hinted at hippie, and sure enough, listening to the other tracks on the album, his influences were way more diverse than you might expect from the sound of the bluegrass anthem. Some of his work is Hare Krishna chanting! In the liner notes I found a reference to the song being “heard in a tipi”. And after getting in touch with Jody himself, confirmed that it was originally a chant, channeled in the moment by a participant in an Arapahoe-led Peyote ceremony in the seventies, facilitated for members of a Mendocino commune who were visiting Colorado. Jody’s cousin was present and sang it to him later, and they saw the potential to create a “bluegrass gospel” song, as he put it. So ultimately, what we thought was contemporary new-agers appropriating a traditional bluegrass song turned out to be a snake eating its own tail. These things are often culturally blurry from the beginning, and so fascinating!