This deeply moving song -- recreated in the twentieth century by vocalists as diverse as Harry Belafonte, Leontyne Price, and the magnificent Mahalia Jackson, and performed in the nineteenth century by the legendary Fisk Jubilee Singers of the 1870s who toured to raise money for Fisk College in Nashville, TN -- is a wonderful example of the rarer blues spiritual in both feeling and structure.
The melody is almost entirely pentatonic in the minor mode, except for the use of the II step and the raised VII on the final lines.
"Sometimes I feel like a motherless child/sometimes I feel like a motherless child/sometimes I feel like a motherless child/A long ways from home (true believer)/A long ways from home (optional repeat of the last two lines)/Sometimes I feel like I'm almost gone/sometimes I feel like I'm almost gone/sometimes I feel like I'm almost gone/a long ways from home/a long ways from home (optional repeat of the last two lines)."
It is difficult to imagine a more direct outpouring of pathos and helpless despair than that expressed here. The poignant phrase "almost gone" or as a modern person might say "completely done in," is a state of utter resignation.
The simplest country blues harmonization of the tune would be (four beats per measure/eight beats per line) I/I/ IV/I/I/I/VI-I (2nd pos.)/V-I/VI-VI-I (2nd pos.)-V/I.
An exquisite setting of the song was composed in 1918 by H.T. Burleigh, with the first verse utilizing rich and somewhat impressionistic modal harmonies, mostly in the relative major key (F major). This creates an atmosphere of a past age. The second verse is set in a melodic minor (raised and lowered VI and VII steps), suggesting more passion and struggle.