For a time, I tried to write down family tradition. My family was somewhat unusual in that regard. Family saying came generally from my maternal grandparents—my father wasn’t around for my childhood years—and since my grandparents died when I was relatively young, I didn’t hear much of their wisdom firsthand. Still, my mother told me various things her parents used to say and I tried to keep a record. Kind of like I wanted to be an anthropologist for raw folk sayings among the, non-elites. One thing my grandmother used to say, so I was told, was “Where was Moses when the lights went out?” I was always intrigued by this since I supposed it had something to do with Moses the miracle-worker. I guess I imagined Moses waving his rod and the lights coming back on. That single question is all I ever heard of this particular family treasure. I forgot about it until recently, though the miracle of the world-wide web, I learned that the query comes from a song.
The song, it turns out, exists in multiple versions. The Library of Congress has a recording dating to 1901 available on the web. According to this version, written by Harry von Tilzer, Moses was not “the” Moses, but a preacher condemning gambling. Also, “lights” is rendered in the singular. So much for the canonicity of family tradition. Duke University library has an undated, but clearly old, version of another song by the same title. This one does reference the biblical Moses, also the name of the song’s narrator. A child afraid in bed at night falls in love with and marries his nurse girl who used to ask him the question “Where was Moses when the light went out?” as he was falling asleep.
Yet another version, dating from 1965, has the question “Where was Moses when the lights (plural) went out?” followed by the answer, “He’s in the dark.” With all of this instant information from the internet, I’m still not certain what was being conveyed by my grandmother with this cryptic question. My mother said she used to say it when someone walked into the room too late to help with something, a kind of sarcastic “Where were you when I needed you?” What is clear is that the song was about as old as my grandmother and she found it somehow appropriate in an unconventional situation. I have to wonder how much of sacred tradition, including the Bible, might have come from misunderstood original instruction. We will, of course, never know. I don’t know what the original lyrics were, but I have learned that even family wisdom has a backstory, like any Scripture, for those who look hard enough.