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"Nobody Knows the Trouble I've Seen": An African-American Spiritual Song

The history of “Nobody Knows the Trouble I've Seen” dates back to the early 19th century when “African-American” the religious music gained a new perspective due to the ongoing Civil War in the United States of America. Similar religious songs were composed by slaves in the southern parts of USA, both prior to and during the war.

Young African American man praying


The songs crafted at that time were meaningful in representing the plight of the residents of the Southern states. They often depicted hidden messages, with veiled protests against anarchy and slavery. Some songs also contained words about escaping to Canada or the Northern states. “Nobody Knows the Trouble I've Seen” expresses the pain suffered by the inhabitants, the “slaves,” and offers them hope through passionate religious beliefs.        


The melody of the song offers an old southern vibe with moderate pacing. The lyrics are similar to Stephen Foster songs, and also has a slight resemblance to the song “Hang Down Your Head, Tom Dooley,” – an American classic folk. The secondary material in the song takes a more glorious approach. It oozes of palpable nostalgic warmth, albeit a less rhythmical yet cheerful essence. It’s in the line of “He's Got the Whole World in His Hands,” or the “When the Saints Go Marching In” – the classic spiritual genre.      

The song wasn’t published until 1867 and has several cover versions performed by a host of renowned artists. Sam Cooke, Paul Robeson, Harry James, Louis Armstrong, Lena Horne, and Marian Anderson are the most prominent names to have sung it.

Louis Armstrong playing trumpet

The early 19th century was witness to the rise of African-American music which began to make its mark in classical music. J. Rosamond Johnson, Henry Thacker Burleigh, and Samuel Coleridge-Taylor were some notable black composers on this era. In 1917, Johnson crafted a voice and piano arrangement for “Nobody Knows the Trouble I've Seen,” while he was the Director of “New York Music School Settlement for Colored People.”

Maud Powell, the renowned American violinist was the first European-American to perform classical arrangements of spiritual music in solo concerts. She also successfully interpreted many contemporary and classical pieces. In 1919, on Powell’s suggestion, J.R. Johnson crafted another arrangement of “Nobody Knows the Trouble I See,” this time for violin and piano. Powell played this in a fall program in November, just prior to her sad demise.         


Usage in Popular Culture

  • Roberto Rossellini used this in the 2nd episode of Paisan (1946), where a black American soldier renders this out for an Italian child.
  • In 1961, the song was also utilized by Bing Crosby in a medley for his album “101 Gang Songs.”
  • The famous serial Doctor Who also used the song in its first episode titled “The Evil of the Daleks” in 1967 in a coffee bar scene. 
  • In 1978, Ry Cooder used a certain portion of the song’s lyrics for his jazz album. The couplet was utilized as an opening to Cooder’s version of “Nobody,” which was originally crafted and performed by Bert Williams.   
  • In 1986, Perfect Strangers used a line from the song in Episode 5 of its 2nd season. 
  • In 1987, a tweaked version of the song was utilized in the movie Spaceballs. However, the lyrics read, “Nobody Knows the Trouble I've seen/Nobody Knows But Jesus.”
  • In 1987, Lt. Proctor sang this song in the film “Police Academy 4.”
  • In 1990, Will Smith played a piano version of the song in Season 1 of “The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air.”
  • In the 1994 classic “The Lion King,” the character “Zazu” sang this to “Scar” in captivity. 
  • In 1997, the song was utilized in the episode titled “Dee Dee Be Deep,” of the popular cartoon Dexter's Laboratory. 
  • In 1998, the song was used in a Recess episode of “The Voice.”
  • In 2007, a part of the song was used in the 1st verse of “Monument.”
  • In 2010, the Sitcom titled “The New Adventures of Old Christine,” the song is sung by the protagonist while stuck in a subway station. 
  • In 2013, Beverly Goldberg sang this song in Season 1 of “The Goldbergs.”
  • Dixie Hummingbirds performed this song on a BBC Four Documentary by Rich Hall, titled “Rich Hall's the Dirty South.”
  • Sheldon Cooper played the song on a Theremin in the popular TV Show “The Big Bang Theory.”


“Nobody Knows the Trouble I've Seen” endeavors to offer the message that sorrow isn’t the end of the road. As human beings, we all suffer. However, in our baser moments, we tend to cling on the assumption that other human beings may not have suffered as much. This fallacy arises from the simple fact that we cannot really feel each other’s pain, we can only realize our own sufferings. A situation that may cause fear or anxiety in one person may not cause the same level of pain to another one. This is further explained by the fact that we fail to move on from our sufferings. We are frequently urged to “grow up” or “get over it” as if it’s just a trivial exercise that can be accomplished in the blink of an eye. We are urged to leave everything in the hands of God.   

The important fact is - no matter how lonely or down you are, no matter how terrible life seems to be, the Almighty is aware of everything and will be waiting for you on the other side. We are never alone, as Jesus is always there, casting a watchful eye over us.

The song also addresses the theme of “loneliness” and its effect in one’s life. It also describes the harrowed blindness of the oppressor, followed by the traumatic events of oppression.

The song doubles down on the intense feeling of sadness, or sorrow, in conjunction with its polar opposite – faith. It urges everyone to put their faith in Jesus, highlighting the fact that “Nobody knows but Jesus.”   


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