My comments this week hopefully will serve two purposes. First, I am writing as an invitation to view my virtual organ recital at St. Paul’s this Sunday, November 22, at 4:00.
More details can be found in this week’s newsletter and on the St. Paul’s website and Facebook page, even a hokey little video to advertise this event. My second goal is to provide some background on four African American spirituals. The recital will include organ arrangements of these spirituals. Since I have an overload of information to share with you, I will talk about two of the spirituals here and then the other two next week.
The first spiritual is “Were you there when they crucified my Lord", which we sing at our Good Friday services every year. As you may know, African American spirituals did not originate in a pen-and-paper or printed form. They grew out of a more spontaneous and communal oral tradition, passed on in a sung form from generation to generation. The words for “Were you there” first appeared in print in Negro Hymns from Georgia, compiled in 1897 by Emma M. Backus. The final stanza there is rarely seen elsewhere, “Wuz you dar when he wore de starry crown?” The words and music were first paired in 1899 in Old Plantation Hymns, edited by William E. Barton.
“Were you there” is a barrier breaker. It was the first African American work to be printed in a mainline North American hymnal, the Episcopal Hymnal 1940. It follows a pattern known as “call and response,” common among spirituals. The singers are gathered together at the cross and at the tomb. A song leader or single voice sings a question beginning “Were you there,” to which the group answers by singing the refrain “Oh! Sometimes it causes me to tremble.” The “trembling” is not so much a reaction of fear but rather of awe, the emotional realization that the same God who created the world would undergo such suffering and death for the sake of the whole world. Some hymnals conclude this crucifixion spiritual with an Easter verse, “Were you there when they rolled the stone away?”
Another spiritual arrangement on my recital program is “We are climbing Jacob’s ladder.” It was in existence by 1825 and maybe as early as 1750, and was one of the first spirituals to be sung by white Christians. The words are based on the Biblical account of the patriarch Jacob’s dream (Genesis 28:10-17), in which he sees a ladder leading upward to heaven.
Slaves weren’t allowed to talk while working in the fields, but they were permitted to sing and chant. This is how many spirituals were born. “We are climbing Jacob’s ladder” is a song about spiritual growth and the call to discipleship. The believer’s journey toward God is one of persevering in the faith, rung by rung. The rhythmic pattern of the music for “Jacob’s ladder” implies climbing a rung, then pausing for a breath before moving up to the next step. For the slaves who sang these words, this spiritual held the hope that somehow the slave-owners could be overcome. The same God who kept promises made to Jacob would also deliver the slave from oppression to freedom.
“Jacob’s ladder” has been adopted as a theme song for a number of social justice issues, including gun violence. Other verses that are used sometimes are “Children, do you love my Jesus?” and “Rise, shine, give God glory.” Jacob’s Ladder has been sung by many folk singers and recording artists, including Pete Seeger, Arlo Guthrie, Anne Murray, and Bruce Springsteen. Musician and activist Carol A. Etzler (b. 1944) completely rewrote “Jacob’s ladder,” creating an alternate text from an inclusive and feminist perspective. It is called “We are dancing Sarah’s circle,” based on the story of Sarah in Genesis 17 and 18.
Were you there when they crucified my Lord?
Were you there when they nailed him to the tree?
Were you there when they pierced him in the side?
Were you there when they laid him in the tomb?
Oh! Sometimes it causes me to tremble.
(hymn 172 in The Hymnal 1982)
We are climbing Jacob’s ladder, soldiers of the cross.
Every round goes higher, higher, soldiers of the cross.
Sinner, do you love your Jesus? Soldiers of the cross.
If you love him, why not serve him, soldiers of the cross.
(hymn 220 in Lift Every Voice and Sing II)