A Message of Evangelization in an Old Spiritual

The video below is of a performance of the traditional African-American spiritual “Children Go Where I Send Thee.”

It is a “cumulative song” in that each verse builds on the prior one (like “The 12 Days of Christmas”). The children’s choir in my parish recently sang it to great effect.

Although there are many variations in the verses, the ones below are the most clearly biblical and liturgical. There is a catechetical purpose to the spiritual, and it presents basic teachings in a memorable way:

Children go where I send Thee.
How shall I send thee?
I’m gonna send thee one by one
One for the little bitty baby
born by the Virgin Mary
Born in Bethlehem!

Children go where I send Thee.
How shall I send thee?
I’m gonna send thee two by two
Two for Paul and Silas
One for the little bitty baby
born by the Virgin Mary
Born in Bethlehem!

Children go where I send Thee . . .
Three for the Hebrew children
Two for Paul and Silas
One for the little bitty baby . . .

Children go where I send Thee . . .
Four for the four that knock on the door (Four Evangelists) . . .

Children go where I send Thee . . .
Five for the bread they did divide . . .

Children go where I send Thee . . .
Six for the days when the world was fixed . . .

Children go where I send Thee . . .
Seven for the seven that lead to Heaven (Seven Sacraments) . . .

Children go where I send Thee . . .
Eight for the eight that the flood couldn’t take . . .

Children go where I send Thee . . .
Nine for the angel choirs divine . . .

Children go where I send Thee . . .
Ten for the Ten Commandments . . .

Children go where I send Thee . . .
Eleven for them who saw him ascend . . .

Children go where I send Thee . . .
Twelve for the Twelve Apostles . . .

Enjoy the song:

Cross-posted at the Catholic Standard: A Message of Evangelization in an Old Spiritual

Sober but Serene Themes of Judgment in the Spirituals

Julia Eckel, Smithsonian American Art Museum

I’ve often been impressed by the ability of old African-American spirituals to treat serious subjects in a clear, memorable, and almost joyful way. This is true even of weighty matters like sin and judgment. During early November we are focused on the four last things (death, judgment, Heaven, and hell) and November is also Black Catholic History Month. So, this seems like a good time to look at some of the creative lines from different spirituals that articulate these topics.

It can be very helpful to the preacher, teacher, and parent in recovering an ethos of coming judgment, but in a way that is almost playfully bright while at the same time deeply soulful.

In a certain sense, the spirituals are unimpeachable, even by hypersensitive post-moderns who seek to shame preachers for announcing sterner biblical themes. Most of the spirituals were written by slaves, who creatively worked biblical themes into these songs that helped accompany both their work and their worship.

The spirituals were written in the cauldron of great suffering. If any people might be excused from thinking that the Lord would exempt them from judgment day, it was surely the enslaved in the deep South. If any people might be excused from crying out for vengeance, it was they. Yet the spirituals are almost entirely devoid of condemning language; enslaved blacks sang in ways that looked also to their own sins and the need to be prepared. If they were prepared, God, who knew their trouble, would help them steal away to Jesus. They did not see themselves as exempt from the need to be ready.

If they, who worked hard in the cotton fields and endured the horrors of slavery, thought these texts applied to them, how much more do they apply to us, who recline on our couches and speak of our freedom to do as we please?

Here are some lines from a few of the many spirituals that speak to judgment and the last things:

  • I would not be a sinner, I’ll tell you the reason why. I’m afraid my Lord might call my name and I wouldn’t be ready to die.
  • Some go to Church for to sing and shout, before six months they’s all turned out!
  • Everybody talkin’ ’bout heaven ain’t a goin’ there, Oh my Lord!
  • Where shall I be when the first trumpet sounds? Oh where shall I be when it sounds so loud, when it sounds so loud as to wake up the dead? Oh where shall I be when it sounds? How will it be with my poor soul, Oh where shall I be?
  • Better watch my brother how you walk on the cross! Your foot might slip and your soul get lost!
  • God gave Noah the rainbow sign, no more water but the fire next time!
  • Old Satan wears a hypocrite’s shoe, If you don’t watch he’ll slip it on you!
  • Noah, Noah let me come in!
    The doors are fastened and the windows pinned! fastened an’ de winders pinned
    Noah said, “Ya lost your track
    Can’t plow straight! you keep a-lookin’ back!
  • Knock at the window knock at the door
    Callin’ brother Noah
    Can’t you take more?
    No said Noah cause you’re full of sin!
    God has the key you can’t get in!
  • Well I went to the rock to hide my face
    The rock cried out, no hiding place
    There’s no hiding place down here
    Oh the rock cried I’m burnin’ too!
    I wanna go to heaven just as much as you!
  • Oh sinner man better repent!
    Oh you’d better repent
    for God’s gonna call you to judgment
    There’s no hiding place down there!
  • No signal for another train
    To follow in this line
    Oh sinner you’re forever lost
    When once you’re left behind.
    She’s nearing now the station
    Oh, sinner don’t be vain
    But come and get your ticket
    Be ready for that train!
  • Sinner please don’t let this harvest pass
    And die and lose your soul at last.
  • My Lord, what a morning
    When the stars begin to fall

    You’ll hear the trumpet sound, to wake the nations underground
    Looking to my God’s right hand,
    When the stars begin to fall
    You’ll hear the sinner moan,
    When the stars begin to fall

    You’ll hear the Christian shout,
    Oh, when the stars begin to fall!

Most of these songs are deeply scriptural and make serious appeals to the human soul, but they do so in a way that is creative. They get you tapping your foot and invite you to a joyful consideration of the need to repent before it’s too late. Others are more soulful, even mournful, in their pentatonic scale.

Given all the reluctance to discuss the four last things (death, judgment, Heaven, and Hell), songs like these may help to reopen the door to necessary conversations between preacher and congregation, parents and children. They are a valuable resource.

I’d like to conclude with a creative spiritual about the last judgment. Note that it is rich in biblical references. It is joyful—a real toe-tapper—and makes a serious point along with a wish.

In That Great Getting’ Up Mornin’ Fare You Well

I’m gonna tell ya ’bout da comin’ of da judgment
Dere’s a better day a comin’,
Fare thee well, fare thee well!

Chorus:
In dat great gettin’ up mornin’,
Fare thee well, fare thee well
In dat great gettin’ up mornin’,
Fare thee well, fare thee well

Oh preacher fold yo’ bible,
For dat last souls converted,
Fare thee well, fare thee well

Blow yo’ trumpet Gabriel,
Lord, how loud shall I blow it?
Blow it right and calm and easy,

Do not alarm all my people,
Tell dem all come to da judgment,
Fare thee well, fare thee well!

Do you see dem coffins burstin’,
do you see dem folks is risin’
Do you see dat fork of lightnin’,
Do you hear dat rumblin’ thunder?
Fare thee well, fare thee well!

Do you see dem stars a fallin’,
Do you see da world on fire?
Fare thee well, fare thee well

Do you see dem Saints is risin’,
Fare thee well, fare thee well
See ’em marchin’ home for heaven,
Fare thee well, fare thee well

Oh! Fare thee well poor sinners, fare thee well, fare thee well
Fare thee well poor sinners, fare thee well, fare thee well!

Here are renditions of a few other spirituals:

Rock-a My Soul in the Bosom of Abraham – the Wisdom of an Old Spiritual

In times like these, you need a refuge, a place to rest.

There is an old African-American spiritual that says, “Rock-a my soul in the bosom of Abraham. Oh, rock-a my soul!” At first glance its meaning may seem obscure, but it speaks to a deep tradition and a kind of spiritual strategy that has great wisdom.

Biblically, the “bosom of Abraham” referred to the place of rest in Sheol, where the righteous dead awaited the Messiah and Judgment Day. It is mentioned once: in the Parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus (Luke16:22-23). In it, Lazarus is said to rest and abide in the bosom of Abraham awaiting the Messiah’s full redemption, while the rich man is in Gehenna, a place of torment.

More generally, though, the image of resting in the bosom of Abraham is rooted in that of a sick, frightened, or wounded child in the arms of his father. Most people can remember awakening from a bad dream when they were young and running into their parents’ bedroom for refuge.

Spiritually, Abraham is our father in faith; he also symbolizes the heavenly Father. The ancient Jews considered the bosom of Abraham a place of security, both in life and after death. Resting in the arms of Abraham meant being where the evil one could not reach and the just rested securely.

Christians, too, have taken this image of safety and rest in the arms of Abraham. It finds expression in the beautiful hymn “In Paradisum,” in which Christians are commended to the place (the bosom of Abraham) where Lazarus is poor no longer. One of the antiphons in the final commendation says, “May angels lead you to the bosom of Abraham.”

Then came this African-American spiritual that added a rocking motion to the beautiful rest in Abraham’s arms. The spiritual life is likened to the action of a father rhythmically rocking his child in his arms. The rocking is soothing and reassuring, and (if one is attuned to it) adds a necessary spiritual rhythm to life.

Yes, rock-a my soul in the bosom of Abraham. Oh, rock-a my soul. In a world of injustice and great darkness, we need the soothing rhythm of the Father’s love. We need to learn to dance and move to its rhythms and not be overcome with the tremors and evils of this world.

Consider the graceful dance in this video and seek to imitate its wisdom. Learn to move to the rhythm of the Father rocking us in His arms. Learn to move to the gentle and steady beat of God’s love as He holds us close.

Rock-a my soul …

Enjoy this video, featuring an interpretation of this beautiful and rhythmic spiritual. It is a graceful and exuberant dance showing security in God’s love and embrace.

Celebrating the Spirituals: Sober but Joyful

I’ve often been impressed at the capacity of the Old African American Spirituals to treat of serious matters in a clear yet almost joyful way. This is true even of very serious concepts like sin and judgment. Look at some of the creative lines all from different spirituals:

I would not be a sinner, I’ll tell you the reason why. I’m afraid my Lord might call my name and I wouldn’t be ready to die.

Some go to Church for to sing and shout, before six months they’s all turned out!

Everybody talkin’ ’bout heaven aint a goin’ there, Oh my Lord!

Where shall I be when the first Trumpet sounds, Oh where shall I be when it sounds so loud, when it sounds so loud as to wake up the dead, Oh where shall be when it sounds. How will it be with my poor soul, Oh Where Shall I be?

Better watch my brother how you walk on the cross! Your foot might slip and your soul get lost!

God gave Noah the rainbow sign, no more water but the fire next time!

The last one was a gloss on 2 Peter 3 and all of them are deeply scriptural and serious appeals to the human soul but they do so in a way that is creative. They get you tapping your foot and invite you to a joyful consideration of the need to repent before it’s too late.

Given all the reticence to discuss the four last things (death, judgment, heaven and hell) songs like these may help to re-open the door to necessary conversations between preacher and congregation, parents and their children. They are a valuable resource. The lines above can be found in the following songs listed in the same order as the quotes.

  1. Jesus is a Rock in a Weary Land (as well as a number of old spirituals)
  2. Ezekiel Saw the Wheel
  3. I Got Shoes
  4. Where Shall I Be?
  5. Ezekiel Saw the Wheel
  6. Didn’t it Rain Children!?

I want to conclude with a creative spiritual about the Last Judgment that is featured in the video below. Note that it is rich in Biblical references, it is joyful, a toe tapper and makes a serious point along with a wish: “In That Great Gettin’ Up Mornin Fare You Well!” First the text (with phonetic Spelling) and then the video:

I’m Gonna tell ya ’bout da comin’ of da judgment
Der’s a better day a comin’,
Fare thee well, fare thee well

Chorus:In dat great gettin’ up mornin’,
Fare thee well, fare thee well
In dat great gettin’ up mornin’,
Fare thee well, fare thee well
Oh preacher fold yo’ bible,
For dat last soul’s converted,
Fare thee well, fare thee well

Blow yo’ trumpet Gabriel,
Lord, how loud shall I blow it?
Blow it right and calm and easy,
Do not alarm all my people,
Tell dem all come to da judgment,
Fare thee well, fare thee well


Do you see dem coffins burstin,

do you see dem folks is risin’

Do you see dat fork of lightenin’,
Do you hear dat rumblin’ thunder,
Fare thee well, fare thee well

Do you see dem stars a fallin’,
Do you see da world on fire,
Fare thee well, fare thee well

Do you see dem Saints is risin’,
Fare thee well, fare thee well
See ’em marchin’ home for heaven,
Fare thee well, fare thee well

Fare thee well po’r sinners, fare thee well, fare thee well
Fare thee well po’r sinners, fare thee well, fare thee well!

There are many good version of this out on You tube I have picked this one because the words are easiest to hear. Enjoy!

On Creative Genius and Music as a Kind of Onomatopoeia

A few days ago we discussed whether Angels sing. My own conclusion from the discussion is that there is little or no evidence that Angels sing. About the closest reference is Job 38:7 and even there it is not perfectly clear that they sing. Perhaps the most positive way to state my point is that musical expression is a particular gift and genius of the human person. And our capacity for music is not just to make crude sounds. Rather we are possessed, at least collectively, of creative genius in this regard. The video below illustrates this genius.

Do you remember your grammar and the grammatical term Onomatopoeia? An Onomatopoeia is a word that sounds like the object it describes. Words like oink, meow, Wham! Sizzle, and my personal favorite:”Yackety Yak”

There are times too when music takes up a kind of onomatopoetic quality. In the video below Moses Hogan, one of the great modern arrangers of the old African American Spirituals describes his arrangement of “Joshua Fit the Battle of Jericho.” He has the male and female voices in a frenetic dialogue with lots of staccato notes dominating in the male voices.  This creates the very sound of an intense battle! The song sounds like what it is describing. It’s a kind of “musical onomatopoeia.” There are other aspects of the same concept, you’ll hear the trumpet in the soprano and the battle reach climax in a moment of dissonance. And wait till you hear the walls fall at the very end in a cascade of notes! 

In this three minute video Moses Hogan describes his intent of echoing the sound of a battle and then the song is sung. Enjoy this brilliant and beautiful arrangement of the Spiritual. Admire too the wonderful discipline of the choir that is necessary to execute this spiritual flawlessly.

Celebrating the Spirituals: Sober but Serene on Serious Themes

I’ve often been impressed at the capacity of the Old African American Spirituals to treat of serious matters in a clear yet almost joyful way. This is true even of very serious concepts like sin and judgment.  Look at some of the creative lines all from different spirituals:

I would not be a sinner, I’ll tell you the reason why. I’m afraid my Lord might call my name and I wouldn’t be ready to die.

Some go to Church for to sing and shout, before six months they’s all turned out! 

Everybody talkin’ ’bout heaven aint a goin’ there, Oh my Lord!

Where shall I be when the first Trumpet sounds, Oh where shall I be when it sounds so loud, when it sounds so loud as to wake up the dead, Oh where shall be when it sounds. How will it be with my poor soul, Oh Where Shall I be?

Better watch my brother how you walk on the cross! Your foot might slip and your soul get lost!

God gave Noah the rainbow sign, no more water but the fire next time!

The last one was a gloss on 2 Peter 3 and all of them  are deeply scriptural and serious appeals to the human soul but they do so in a way that is creative. They get you tapping your foot and invite you to a joyful consideration of the need to repent before it’s too late.

Given all the reticence to discuss the four last things (death, judgment, heaven and hell) songs like these may help to re-open the door to necessary conversations between preacher and  congregation, parents and their children. They are a valuable resource. The lines above can be found in the following songs listed in the same order as the quotes.

  1. Jesus is a Rock in a Weary Land (as well as a number of old spirituals)
  2. Ezekiel Saw the Wheel
  3. I Got Shoes
  4. Where Shall I Be?
  5. Ezekiel Saw the Wheel
  6. Didn’t it Rain Children!?

I want to conclude with a creative spiritual about the Last Judgment that is featured in the video below. Note that it is rich in Biblical references, it is joyful, a toe tapper and makes a serious point along with a wish: “In That Great Gettin’ Up Mornin Fare You Well!” First the text (with phonetic Spelling) and then the video:

I’m Gonna tell ya ’bout da comin’ of da judgment
Der’s a better day a comin’,
Fare thee well, fare thee well
 
Chorus:In dat great gettin’ up mornin’,
Fare thee well, fare thee well
In dat great gettin’ up mornin’,
Fare thee well, fare thee well
    Oh preacher fold yo’ bible,
For dat last souls converted,
Fare thee well, fare thee well
Blow yo’ trumpet Gabriel,
Lord, how loud shall I blow it?
Blow it right and calm and easy,
Do not alarm all my people,
Tell dem all come to da judgment,
Fare thee well, fare thee well
Do you see dem coffins burstin,  do you see dem folks is risin’Do you see dat fork of lightenin’,
Do you hear dat rumblin’ thunder,
Fare thee well, fare thee well
Do you see dem stars a fallin’,
Do you see da world on fire,
Fare thee well, fare thee well

Do you see dem Saints is risin’,
Fare thee well, fare thee well
See ’em marchin’ home for heaven,
Fare thee well, fare thee well

Fare thee well po’r sinners, fare thee well, fare thee well
Fare thee well po’r sinners, fare thee well, fare thee well!

There are many good version of this out on You tube I have picked this one because the words are easiest to hear. Enjoy!

Why Are You Worrying? Didn’t My Lord Deliver Daniel?

We often think that worry and anxiety just happen to us. But the fact is that they result from our thoughts. Thoughts are the source of our worry. If we tend to think negatively, or to catastrophize or to focus on negative things we will grow anxious and sometimes angry. But the Bible says we ought to “dedicate ourselves to thankfulness.” (Colossians 3:21). In other words count your blessings and have an attitude of gratitude. We ought to discipline our minds every day and spend some time thanking God for what went right. As Phillipians 4:8 puts it: Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable–if anything is excellent or praiseworthy–think about such things.

What you feed grows. Focus on negative things and sure enough anxiety and anger increase and our sense of the negative grows. Focus on positive things and blessings and guess what, we are less anxious overall and our sense of well being grows.

Try it out for 30 Days. Let me know how it goes. The video below features a classic Spiritual: Didn’t My Lord Deliver Daniel?  It list the many people God saved of old and then asks, “And why not every man?”  That’s right even you and me. It will be alright.  God may not come when you want him but He’s always right on time.

What Are You Longing For? What do you Want?

There’s an old Gospel Song that says, “I heard my mother say, ‘Give me Jesus. You may have all this world; just give me Jesus.'”  In my own life I heard people get to the mature point in their life when they could really say those words without any simulation or exaggeration. In particular I have in mind those I’ve been privileged to accompany toward death. For many of them these words become very real. My own mother died suddenly so I did not have the privilege of making that journey with her along the way. But My Father died after a year-long illness and my Grandmother too. I was able to walk with them in their final stages and I heard them say these words. And I knew it was time because only God can get you ready to say those words in a true and authentic way. I knew they really meant it and God was getting them ready for the great journey over to the other shore.

In the end, we have to desire heaven more  than this world and only God can cause this change and purge us from the many attachments we have to this world. It usually takes the dying process to get us there, though I suppose it shouldn’t have to. But, painful though it is to behold there is something quite beautiful about the  approach to death. I often see a letting go of those who approach death;  perhaps it is of worldly glories, old grudges, preoccupations and many worries. Little by little these things fall away and the “one thing necessary” replaces them. It is merely this:  that we sit at the feet of Jesus and wait for him to bring us over. There comes a moment when those who are dying with faith can truly saying the words of Psalm 27 : There is only one thing I ask of the LORD; this alone I seek: That I  may dwell in the LORD’S house all the days of my life and gaze upon his  beauty.

What do you want? What do you long for? Maybe it’s God! I know, its probably a lot of other things too. But if you’re faithful God can get you to the point where you can truly say: Give me Jesus. You may have all this world. Just Give me Jesus.

Pray along with this beautiful rendition of the Old Song: Give Me Jesus