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The song is recorded in the African Methodist Episcopal Church Review in 1911 as having been sung by an opera singer awaiting trial for fraud in his cell while a group of men arrested for drunk and disorderly conduct were before the judge. The men were said to have dropped to the knees as the song began 'Last night I lay a-sleeping, There came a dream so fair.', the lyrics contrasting with their previous night's drunkenness. The song's conclusion resulted in the judge dismissing the men without punishment, each having learned a lesson from the song.
The song is mentioned in James Joyce's Ulysses, published 1918-1920. It gained renewed popularity when it was sung by Jeanette MacDonald in the 1936 hit film San Francisco. The melody formed the basis of a Spiritual titled Hosanna, which in turn was the basis for the opening of Duke Ellington's Black and Tan Fantasy.
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