Advent, Day 10: Oil in My Lamp

LOOK: Oil Lamp by Andrew Wyeth

Wyeth, Andrew_Oil Lamp
Andrew Wyeth (American, 1917–2009), Oil Lamp, 1945. Tempera on hardboard panel, 34 × 42 in. (86.4 × 106.6 cm). Collection of Phyllis and Jamie Wyeth. Photo courtesy of the Farnsworth Art Museum, Rockland, Maine.

Andrew Wyeth’s realist paintings center narratives of rural life in Pennsylvania, where he lived for most of each year, and Maine, where he and his wife spent their summers. This one shows his friend Alvaro Olson sitting in a room of his (Alvaro’s) eighteenth-century farmhouse in Cushing, Maine. Weary and worn, he stares off to the side, his face cast in the dim glow of an oil lamp. Alvaro tended to the family farm and took care of his increasingly debilitated sister, Christina, who is the subject of Wyeth’s most famous painting, Christina’s World.

Wyeth is one of my favorite artists, and I’ve featured his work a few times on the blog: here, here, and here.

LISTEN: “Oil in My Lamp,” traditional gospel song | Arranged by Gene Parsons and Clarence White and performed by the Byrds on Ballad of Easy Rider (1969)

Give me oil in my lamp
Keep me burning, burning, burning
Give me oil in my lamp, I pray
Give me oil in my lamp
Keep me burning, burning, burning
Keep me burning till the break of day

Sing, oh sinner!* sing, oh sinner!
Sing, oh sinner, to the King!
Sing, oh sinner! sing, oh sinner!
Sing, oh sinner, to the King!

* The traditional lyrics of the chorus are “Sing hosanna.”

This gospel song is inspired by Jesus’s parable from Matthew 25:1–13, in which ten bridesmaids are waiting for the bridegroom to come to them so that the wedding-night procession can start. Having not prepared an adequate supply of oil, five of the women foolishly allow their lamps to burn out, while the other five, ready with oil refills, keep theirs lit. The parable is a warning to be prepared for the Bridegroom’s return, always kindling our faith and shining forth our good works. The song is thus a plea that God would help us persevere.

I was first introduced to “Oil in My Lamp” through the country-rock arrangement by the Byrds’ guitarist Clarence White and drummer Gene Parsons, who recorded it with their bandmates in 1969. (This version was covered nicely by Neal Casal in 1999, using more minimal instrumentation and a slower tempo for more contemplative vibes.)

The song’s origins are elusive, with most sources simply using the attribution “Traditional.” Fascinated as I am by sacred song histories, I got a bit carried away trying to track down more information. So feel free to stop reading here—or follow to the end if you want to trace the song’s evolution and follow links to different creative interpretations!

The earliest appearance of the lyrics, at least one version of them, that I could find is in the short story “Safe in the Arms of Jesus” by Arthur Huff Fauset, an African American writer, published in Opportunity: A Journal of Negro Life 7, no. 4 (April 1929), p. 126. At an Easter night service, the Reverend De Witt Coleman steps up to his Baptist pulpit and addresses the small male chorus seated at his side.

“Boys,” he screamed, “I want you to sing for me. Sing as you never sang before . . . that song of yours called, ‘Has My Gas Bill Been Paid,’ or something like that!”

The vast congregation roared with laughter at this facetious petition of their leader.

A group of five men arose and began to croon softly. The audience became suddenly still. The tenor gave the note, then the bass and other members of the chorus took up the tone. They launched into song:

Give me oil in my lamp,
Give me oil in my lamp,
Give me oil in my lamp, I pray;
Keep me singing in the camp,
Keep me singing in the camp,
Until the break of day.

When my cup runneth over,
When my cup runneth over,
When my cup runneth over with joy;
I find it easy to pray,
And to sing every day,
When my cup runneth over with joy.

Give me oil in my lamp,
Give me oil in my lamp,
Give me oil in my lamp, I pray;
Keep me singing in the camp,
Keep me singing in the camp,
Until the break of day.

Besides being an active figure in the Harlem Renaissance, Fauset was an anthropologist and a folklorist who conducted fieldwork among Black communities in the Deep South, the British West Indies, and Nova Scotia. He may have collected this song from any of the many people he interviewed, or churches he visited, in those places. My guess is that it originated in the United States as a camp meeting song in the early twentieth century, hence the line “Keep me singing in the camp” (though this lyric could have been a later adaptation to fit that context). “Camp meeting” is the name given to the outdoor evangelical religious services that spread across the American frontier in the early nineteenth century.

“The camp meeting tradition fostered a tradition of music and hymn singing with strong oral, improvisatory, and spontaneous elements,” reads a Wikipedia article. “Both tunes and words were created, changed, and adapted in true folk music fashion.” 

In the 1950s, “Oil in My Lamp” (alternatively titled “Give Me Oil in My Lamp” or “Sing Hosanna”) spread throughout the country through traveling song leaders, songbook publishers, and other networks. Boundless Praise, published in Lawrenceville, Tennessee, in 1944, is the earliest songbook appearance I can find (attribution: “Author unknown”), and the earliest recording I found is from The Four Girls gospel quartet, who sang it as part of a medley for an Easter 1954 broadcast (“Give me oil in my lamp / Keep me shining in the camp / Until the judgment day”).

Singspiration published the song text in 1951, citing A. Sevison as the author (probably because he added the verse “Make me a fisher of men, keep me seeking . . .” and possibly also the “Sing hosanna” refrain), and in 1963 they published an arrangement by “the Csehys” (Wilmos and Gladys Csehy?) and Norman Johnson.

After that, the song appeared in Girl Scouts / Girl Guides songbooks and, later, on major children’s music albums, like Wee Sing Bible Songs (1986), Bible Songs by Cedarmont Kids (1997), and Bob and Larry’s Sunday Morning Songs (2002) from the VeggieTales Sing-Alongs series. The children’s versions often include additional verses, such as “Give me joy in my heart, keep me singing . . . ,” “Give me peace in my heart, keep me resting . . . ,” “Give me love in my heart, keep me serving . . . ,” and so on.

One interesting thing I found is how popular—and widely recorded—the song was in Jamaica, starting in the sixties.

In 1964, five years before the Byrds release, Jamaican ska singer Eric “Monty” Morris recorded it with Byron Lee and the Dragonaires, and it was a huge hit. Other Jamaican artists, including Jackie Edwards (1964) and Desmond Dekker and The Specials (1993), followed, and the song appears on several reggae gospel compilations.

Jamaican singer-songwriter and percussionist Dick “Syncona” Smith, who became a linchpin of the Toronto music scene after migrating there in the 1960s, released a notable variation in 1974 that opens with this new verse:

When the burden of life makes me weary
And I feel that I can’t carry on
When my time’s running out and my nights get lonely
Lord, I need someone to hear my song

The extensive popularity of “Oil in My Lamp” among Caribbean artists makes me wonder if perhaps the song actually originated on Caribbean soil and was brought to the US by migrants.

If you have any additional information about the song’s history, or know of any recordings prior to 1954, please do share!

3 thoughts on “Advent, Day 10: Oil in My Lamp

  1. The detour into the song’s roots is really interesting.
    I am loving this advent journey too, such am eclectic mix of images and music. Thank you

    Like

  2. Good morning Victoria! I am probably behind the time here, but my friend just shared with me a singer named Samara Joy . One of the videos was O Holy Night. She’s got an incredible voice! Have a blessed Christmas! Love your emails!!!!! Peace – Nancy

    Sent from my iPhone

    >

    Like

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