Keys (Artful Devotion)

St. Peter with the keys to heaven
Ink drawing with color wash from the Liber Vitae of New Minster and Hyde, England, ca. 1031. Stowe MS 944, fol. 7r, British Library, London.

Fear not, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom.

—Luke 12:32


SONG: “Keys to the Kingdom” | Traditional gospel blues song, performed by Abigail Washburn (lead vocals), Kai Welch (trumpet, backing vocals), and friends (I can’t find the names of the upright bassist and percussionist—anyone know?)

I’ve got the keys to the kingdom, the world can’t do me no harm

Go Gabriel, get the trumpet, move on down to the sea
Don’t you sound that trumpet, ’til you hear from me

I’ve got the keys to the kingdom, the world can’t do me no harm

Take ol’ John on the island, place him in a kettle of oil
Then the angels came from heaven down, told him that the oil wouldn’t boil

I’ve got the keys to the kingdom, the world can’t do me no harm

Take ol’ Paul and Silas, place ’em in jail below
Then the angels came from heaven down and unlocked that prison-house door

I’ve got the keys to the kingdom, the world can’t do me no harm

When I get in trouble, I know I done no crime
Wake up central in Glory, and Jesus come to the phone

I’ve got the keys to the kingdom, the world can’t do me no harm
I got the keys to the kingdom, the world can’t do me no harm

Abigail Washburn is a Grammy Award–winning clawhammer banjo player and singer and one of my favorite musical artists. Here she sings a traditional song from the American South, which, as is typical of such songs, exists in many variations. Her version, she says, is based on a performance by Lillie Cogswell Knox, recorded a cappella on a porch in Murrells Inlet, South Carolina, in the 1930s. You can listen to this historic recording on Deep River of Song: South Carolina—Got the Keys to the Kingdom, from the Alan Lomax Collection.

Washburn has performed “Keys to the Kingdom” at many concerts, each performance unique. You can find a handful of these on YouTube; I particularly like the smoky jazz version she did at the Berkeley Café in Raleigh, North Carolina, in January 2011, embedded above. She also recorded the song on the 2006 EP The Sparrow Quartet, the album title a reference to the cross-cultural folk music group consisting of herself, husband Béla Fleck (banjo), Ben Sollee (cello), and Casey Driessen (fiddle). The album version has a banjo accompaniment (by Fleck) and an overall brighter tone.

While Matthew 16:19, Jesus’s metaphoric handing over of the keys to Peter and the church, is the more direct inspiration for the refrain, I love reading the gentle saying of Jesus from Luke 12:32 in relation to this song.


The drawing above is a detail from one of the pages of the eleventh-century Liber Vitae (“Book of Life”) from New Minster in Winchester, a medieval Benedictine monastery that moved to Hyde after the Norman Conquest. The book contains a list of names of the members of the community and its associates and benefactors, living and dead, along with pictures, grants, historical accounts, material for church services, prayers, and other devotional material.

This drawing is part of a spread toward the beginning of the manuscript that shows St. Peter unlocking the gates of heaven as he welcomes in a queue of the saved from the facing page. Inside the celestial city, Christ is adored. The page’s middle band shows Peter fighting a devil for a man’s soul. The man’s victory is secure, as his name is recorded in the Book of Life, which the angel flashes open, over against the devil’s faulty document. Amusingly, to cinch the victory, Peter delivers a mighty whack to the devil’s head with his oversize key!

We’ve got the keys to the kingdom—we’re heirs with full access, granted us by our loving Father. The world can’t do us no harm.

This post belongs to the weekly series Artful Devotion. If you can’t view the music player in your email or RSS reader, try opening the post in your browser.

To view all the Revised Common Lectionary scripture readings for Proper 14, cycle C, click here.

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