Highways to Zion (Artful Devotion)

Choumali, Joana_Ca Va Aller 54
Joana Choumali (Ivorian, 1974–), Ça Va Aller #54, 2018. iPhone photograph printed on cotton canvas and hand-embroidered with cotton, lurex, and wool thread, 9 2/5 × 9 2/5 in. (24 × 24 cm).

Blessed are those whose strength is in you,
in whose heart are the highways to Zion.

—Psalm 84:5 ESV

Alternate translation (NKJV):

Blessed is the man whose strength is in You,
whose heart is set on pilgrimage.

+++

SONG: “Marching to Zion” | Words: Isaac Watts, 1707, and Robert Lowry, 1867 (adapt.) | Music: Traditional black gospel | Performed by The Long Walk Home Gospel Choir, led by Dr. Clifford Bibb, on The Long Walk Home original motion picture soundtrack (1991)

I first heard this song years ago in the end credits of The Long Walk Home (1990), a historical drama film about the impact of the 1955 Montgomery bus boycott on a black maid and her white employer. I was so moved by the spirited communal singing of this song about the people of God heading confidently through the fray of this world toward heaven, which alludes to the literal ascent of ancient Jewish pilgrims up the hill to Jerusalem. I looked up the song afterward to find that it is a gospelized adaptation of the Isaac Watts hymn “Come, we that love the Lord” and the nineteenth-century refrain added by Robert Lowry, which goes, in 6/8 time,

We’re marching to Zion,
Beautiful, beautiful Zion;
We’re marching upward to Zion,
The beautiful city of God.

Writing during the rise of American revivalism, Lowry also gave the hymn the tune by which it is commonly known and sung today, reproduced in many hymnals. Despite my being raised Baptist, I never recall having sung this hymn before.

The version of the song used in The Long Walk Home has a completely different meter (4/4) and tune, and it also foregrounds this revised refrain:

We’re marching, marching up to Zion
That beautiful city of God
We’re marching, marching up to Zion
That beautiful city of God

Despite extensive searching, I’ve not been able to find the composer of this version. The soundtrack liner notes credit it as a “Traditional” arranged for the movie by Bernard Sneed, who’s on piano, and Dr. Clifford Bibb, the song leader. The version they’ve arranged almost surely originated in the black church in America and appears to have risen to popularity in the late 1940s. Some early recordings include the Roberta Martin Singers, feat. Eugene Smith (1953); the Blind Boys of Alabama (formerly the Happyland Singers), feat. Clarence Fountain (1954, 1971, etc.); Rev. James Cleveland; the Swan Silvertones; and the Ward Gospel Singers, feat. Viola Crowley (1963). These are all great—but I think I still like the Long Walk Home Gospel Choir recording the best. The intro and outro, which use other musical motives from the film, were composed by George Fenton, who wrote the score not only for this film but also for Dangerous Liaisons, Groundhog Day, You’ve Got Mail, Anna and the King, Sweet Home Alabama, Hitch, The Lady in the Van, and others.

The song also appears under the titles “We’re Marching to Zion,” “Marching Up to Zion,” or “Marching On to Zion.”

If you have any info on the history of, or piano music for, this particular version of the song, please do share! Black churches, from what I can tell, sing both versions, but all the hymnals I’ve consulted use Lowry’s version.

+++

Joana Choumali from Côte d’Ivoire is doing beautiful mixed-media work that combines photography and embroidery. The above work is from her series Ça va aller (“It will be OK”). She began this series three weeks after the 2016 terrorist attack in Grand-Bassam, a historic southeastern seaside town where she used to spend peaceful Sunday afternoons on the beach. With her iPhone, she took photos of residents going about their daily business in the aftermath of this traumatic event, bearing their melancholy quietly. She said that adding the colorful stitches to the printed photographs was healing for her and an act of defiant hope. View more on her website.

In Ça Va Aller #54, a man walks a dusty road that erupts before him into a spectacular upward whirl of tiny cross-shapes that evoke a flock of wild birds or flower blossoms. I see joy, I see hope. I see a man stepping into and being led forward by these virtues.


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 25, cycle C, click here.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s