The song dates back to the era of slavery in the United States when it was common practice to sell children of slaves away from their parents. An early performance of the song dates back to the 1870s by the Fisk Jubilee Singers.Like many traditional songs, it has many variations and has been recorded widely. 
 
The song is clearly an expression of pain and despair as it conveys the hopelessness of a child who has been torn from his or her parents. Under one interpretation, the repetitive singing of the word "sometimes" offers a measure of hope, as it suggests that at least "sometimes" I do not feel like a motherless child

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