There are always things to learn if we are curious enough.
The late storytelling songwriter Tom T. Hall got me to digging after contemplating some of his words that flowed from the radio: “Bathed my soul in the sun; washed my face in the morning dew; and kept on movin’ along.”
Washing one’s face in the dew and allowing it to dry in the fresh air, I soon discovered, was an ancient Scottish May Day tradition for seeking good luck. It was, as someone put it, “the holy water of the druids.”
I don’t recall hearing that before. My mother was more concerned that her four sons washed behind our ears with Ivory soap, warm tap water and what she called a “warsh rag.”
But, apparently, Scots-Irish immigrants — who are part of my family tree and many others across Appalachia — brought along this idea.
Such folklore, according to the website “Blind Pig and an Acorn,” included getting one’s head wet from the first rain of May to avoid headaches all year.
The washing of one’s face on the first day of May, however, was believed by some to provide radiant beauty. Such tidbits came from the Frank C. Brown Collection of North Carolina Folklore.
With spring approaching, we might keep our options open for such health and beauty tips beyond the incessant infomercials and popup ads.
For songwriter Tom T. Hall, however, the idea of washing one’s face in the dew is more an act of cleansing the soul from disappointment and knowing when to leave. It is akin to Jesus’ words about shaking the dust off one’s sandals and moving on.
Hall explained his 1967 recording (according to Lyricsbox and other music-related websites) in this way: “It was inspired by an old folk medicine tale: if you wash your face in the morning dew, it will help remove blemishes from your skin,” said Hall. “I changed it around to mean that the morning dew would purify your soul.”
His perspective aligns with the biblical truth that Samuel (16:7) was told: we tend to look at outward appearances, but God looks on the heart.
That doesn’t mean all vanity vanishes. Hall recorded the song after bluegrass legends Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs turned it down.
It was successful enough (top 30) to lead to other recordings, giving him the money “to have my teeth capped.”
But the song gives needed perspective as the subject (in first person) goes from town to town in search of a place to settle.
In the first town, he encounters an execution where “nobody cared if he lived or died.” At his next stop, he finds people “laughing at a poor crippled man begging for nickels and dimes on the street.”
Hall confesses to not understanding such harsh attitudes and degrading behaviors. So, he moves on.
His third stop appeared to be “peaceful and nice.” But the social system, he discovered, was stacked in favor of the few: “the rich got richer, and the poor got poorer.”
After each encounter he bathes his soul in the sun, washes his face in the morning dew, and moves on. Yet, he does so with some hope amid all the disappointment:
“Someday things are bound to change; it can’t be very far. And each injustice I have seen, will come before the bar.”
In the Gospels, Jesus sends his disciples to inhospitable places where personal power and religious piety are preferred over acts of justice and goodness. Instructing them to shake the dust from their feet was a ritualistic way to move on.
Sadly, such injustice and inhumanity occur today — both within and without institutionalized expressions of faith. We must face up to them without giving in to them.
Washing our faces or shaking our shoes — even figuratively — acknowledges that the rejection of truth and love can be expected, requiring one to seek new opportunities for goodness.
Faithfulness is not static. It isn’t settling into the first comfortable spot we find — and then slipping one’s mind and heart into neutral.
There is much within Americanized Christianity today from which we corporately and individually need to distance ourselves.
Removing injustice, untruth, fear, discrimination, abuse, inequality, unkindness and violence from our lives is more important than improving our pores or teeth.
Such faithfulness is a different kind of “spiritual journey” than many of us first considered. But I’m going with it.
I’ll keep “movin’ along” until I find (and help enact) the ways of Jesus over false claims of superior patriotism or more devout Christianity — that actually reveal lesser, conflicting and self-serving allegiances.
Awareness and assessment allow us to see more clearly the absence of honesty, compassion and justice.
And then to wash our faces or dust off our shoes — all in pursuit of the kind of life offered by the one who still calls us to “follow me.”
Executive editor / publisher at Good Faith Media.