Here are just some of the variants of our first verse:
“Mary” is sometimes “Sister Mary” or “Sis Mary”
“Three links of chain” is sometimes “three silver chain[s]”
“Every link bearin' Jesus' name” is sometimes “bearin' freedom's name” or, to go with the “three chains” above, “each chain bore the Savior's name”
“Matthew Mark and Luke and John” is sometimes “Gabriel stood and blowed his horn” or “You better let God's chillun alone”
I'm going to speculate here (something you've never, ever heard me do before in these posts) and say that the “three” probably refers in some way to the Trinity. The idea that there were three parts, and that Mary was Jesus' earthly mother, and that He was one of the parts . . . it sort of adds up, theologically. Remember, as I discussed in the post on “Ezekiel Saw de Wheel,” reading and writing were forbidden to slaves. The only way any text could survive was to be passed down orally. I ran into yet another excellent source online that had some insight into this process:
If reading was forbidden, listening wasn’t, and slaves caught snatches of hymns outside the slave owner’s churches. Out of little scraps of Biblical text and bits and pieces of psalms and hymns, hundreds of new and beautifully repetitious songs were fashioned and reworked until they became beautiful folk poetry. (“Negro Spirituals: Songs of Survival” by Tom Faigin, entire article here).
If you think about it, unless they were very long, thin, flexible links, it would be pretty hard to “wear” a three-link chain. Around your neck? Your wrist? So the “silver chain” version makes more sense. Or perhaps the three links were being used to fasten Mary to something, or to connect manacles around the wrists or ankles. Slaves were, sadly, very well acquainted with the concept of wearing chains or being chained up. If your chain had a message of hope engraved on it then it might be more bearable.
In doing research on this spiritual I ran into a new term: “floating verses”--ones that show up in different songs because they've “floated” from one song to another. But with “Mary Wore,” we seem to be dealing with something more like a “floating rhythm” or “floating pattern.” As long as the words fit a certain tune, they can be shoehorned into the song whether the meaning fits the original intent or not. I ran across several references to the song “Hand Me Down My Walkin' Cane” which doesn't refer to anything biblical but which is sung to the same tune and has retained the refrain about sins' being taken away. The first verse reads “Hand me down my walkin' cane/I'm gonna leave on the midnight train.” As with the change from “every link bearin' Jesus' name” to “every link bearin' freedom's name,” this set of lyrics seems to reference escape from slavery, with “midnight train” referring to the Underground Railroad. A good tune or rhythm pattern is endlessly adaptable.
If you want to watch an array of various groups singing various versions of this song, go on YouTube. But, while you're there, be sure to watch a video of yet another spiritual we're singing, “Joshua Fit the Battle of Jericho,” with an opening commentary by the arranger himself, Moses Hogan, and a performance directed by him here. Speaking of shoehorning, I think I have time to discuss one more spiritual next week, appropriately titled “Ain't Got Time to Die,” before going on to some of our jazz selections.