American Folk Songs for Christmas, compiled by Ruth Crawford Seeger

Ruth Crawford Seeger (1901–1953) was a pioneering American folk music specialist who selected, transcribed, and placed songs from the vast collections of the Lomax family and others into published works for use in primary schools and homes. Her mission was, in her own words, “to give back to the people songs that belong to them.” [1]

A conservatory-trained musician and budding modernist composer who spent a Guggenheim year in Europe, Ruth shifted her career goals in 1936 when a move to Washington, DC, brought her into proximity of the Archive of American Folk Song and ignited her passion for the homespun music of her own country. Work songs, love songs, prison songs, dance songs, hollers, chants, spirituals, blues, Cajun tunes, ballads with archaic tonal textures—all these and more were preserved on hundreds of aluminum and acetate disks or magnetic tape and wire at the initiative of traveling ethnomusicologists but at the time were mostly unknown outside the small communities of which they were a part.

Her relocation to the nation’s capital was prompted by her music scholar husband Charles Seeger’s being hired onto the Works Progress Administration’s Federal Music Project, a New Deal program to employ musicians, conductors, and composers during the Great Depression and to promote music appreciation and training. Charles’s job was to set up music recreation programs across the US—to get every American singing, playing an instrument, or both. Ruth absorbed his enthusiasm and through his work came to know the folk song collectors John A. Lomax and his son, Alan, who frequently brought folk singers from their recording sessions at the Library of Congress to evening singing sessions and instrumental jams at the Seegers’s Silver Spring, Maryland, home. [2]

Ruth began transcribing and arranging some of the music she was hearing from guests and at traditional music festivals, and John Lomax took notice, enlisting her transcription expertise for two publication projects. She spent many hours at an Ansley turntable, notating texts, melodies, and rhythms so that the musical treasures created and sung in various pockets of the country and collected by her colleagues could be available in print for children’s education and home entertainment, deepening American cultural awareness and celebration.

Ruth keenly felt an urgency to save American folk songs from extinction. Toiling deep in the archives of the Library of Congress alongside the famed father, son, and daughter musicologist team of John Avery Lomax, Alan Lomax, and Bess Lomax Hawes, she sifted through their 10,000 field recordings of native singers and transcribed songs. She helped the Lomaxes produce two sweeping surveys of “people’s music,” Our Singing Country (1941) and Best Loved American Folk Songs (1947), creating notated versions for over 300 folk songs (the second anthology with the help of both her husband Charles Seeger and her stepson Pete Seeger). Fluent in both languages of music, formal and primitive, she moved easily from avant-garde elite to New Deal populist and became the bridge between modern urban and rural traditional music. . . .

American Folk Songs for Christmas (1953) was Ruth Crawford Seeger’s third songbook in a trilogy of inspired generosity: American Folk Songs for Children (1948) and Animal Folk Songs for Children (1950), in addition to an earlier book of piano arrangements, Twenty-Two American Folk Tunes (1937). Tragically, her life was cut short when she died of cancer the very same year this Christmas anthology was published. But Ruth raised her children Mike, Peggy, Penny, and stepson Pete with such a powerful passion for and knowledge of traditional musical forms, few would dispute that the American folk revival started on her knee. [3]

Of all the contributions of Ruth Crawford Seeger, I’m perhaps most grateful for her American Folk Songs for Christmas (Doubleday, 1953; Loomis House, 2013), a book of simple piano arrangements of Christmas or Christmas-adjacent songs from the American English-speaking folk tradition. Direct expressions from everyday people, these fifty-five songs—and one fiddle tune!—were not widely known until Ruth compiled and arranged them for mass publication. Thirteen of them she transcribed from traditional recordings in the Library of Congress, while the others come from folklore journals and collections, shape-note hymnals, and from singers themselves. Ruth hoped this songbook would “supplement the already rich international store of traditional Christmas song,” [4] expanding schoolkids’ and families’ usual Christmas repertoire to include some of these homegrown gems.

Although at least half the selections will still be unfamiliar to the general public, several have become beloved classics, especially some of the African American spirituals, like “Go Tell It on the Mountain,” “Children, Go Where I Send Thee,” and “Rise Up, Shepherd, and Follow.” While Ruth wasn’t the only one drawing attention to these songs—the lengthy Acknowledgments section cites the publisher, society, institution, and/or individual each song was sourced from—she was certainly an important popularizer.

Twenty of these songs were released in 1957 on an album of the same title, American Folk Songs for Christmas, performed by Ruth’s daughters Peggy, Barbara, and Penny Seeger and with children from the South Boston Music School. In 2013 the songs were revitalized with the release of The Sounding Joy: Christmas Songs in and out of the Ruth Crawford Seeger Songbook by Elizabeth Mitchell and friends. Both albums were put out by Smithsonian Folkways, the nonprofit record label of the Smithsonian Institution.

One of my favorites is “Baby Born Today,” a “shout” song from McIntosh County, Georgia, that was traditionally sung at Watch Night services at Black churches on Christmas Eve, sung back and forth from leader to group for a long time. [5] Folklorist Robert W. Gordon learned it from Mary C. Mann, a deaconess in the Episcopal Church, when doing field recordings in Darien in 1926.

Another African American Christmas spiritual is “Sing Hallelu,” which is from St. Helena Island, South Carolina. It’s sung here by Elizabeth Mitchell and her husband, Daniel Littleton, accompanied on harp by Elizabeth Clark-Jerez.

Found on Port Royal Island, South Carolina, in 1861, where it was in current use, “Heard from Heaven Today” was reported to be sung regularly in church by the entire congregation with a swaying bodily movement, rhythmical tapping of hands and feet, head nodding, and so forth. It was first published in Slave Songs of the United States by William Francis Allen, Charles Pickard Ware, and Lucy McKim Garrison (1867). It’s on neither the Seeger Sisters’ nor the Mitchell album, but there’s a nice recording by Nowell Sing We Clear:

Ruth Crawford Seeger’s transcription of “January, February (Last Month of the Year),” aka “When Was Jesus Born,” is based on a 1939 field recording of Betty May Bowman and a group of African American women prisoners from the state penitentiary in Parchman, Mississippi. (Other field recordings of the song from the late thirties and early forties are from Alabama and Georgia, so it was relatively common throughout the South.) It has since been widely covered by gospel artists, including the Fairfield Four, Sister Rosetta Tharpe, the Blind Boys of Alabama, the Staples Singers, and Liz McComb. The recording for The Sounding Joy features Amy Helm on lead vocals, as in this video:

Of course the precise date of Jesus’s birth is not known, but dating forward nine months from the feast of the Annunciation, it came to be celebrated in the West on December 25. Out of overconcern for the song’s questionable declaration that Jesus was born “on the last month of the year . . . on the twenty-fifth day of December,” some Christians have chosen to scrap the song, which is a shame, because I see it simply as an acknowledgment of this very special event on our calendars that we commemorate each year at the same time. We need not be so literalistic.

American Folk Songs for Christmas, the songbook, contains eight shape-note, aka “sacred harp,” songs, a distinctively American brand of sacred choral music that originated in New England and was later carried on in the southern United States. These are less improvisatory, more set. The text of “Cradle Hymn” is actually by the great English hymn-writer Isaac Watts, which appeared in William Walker’s Southern Harmony (1835) with the Kentucky folk tune RESTORATION. It’s a lullaby that gently contrasts the comfort and security of one’s own child with the poverty of the infant Jesus.

Hush, my dear, lie still and slumber;
Holy angels guard Thy bed;
Heav’nly blessings without number
Gently falling on thy head.

How much better thou’rt tended
Than the Son of God could be,
When from heaven He descended,
And became a child like thee.

Soft and easy is thy cradle,
Coarse and hard thy Savior lay,
When His birthplace was a stable,
And His softest bed the hay.

“Babe of Bethlehem” is another hymn from Southern Harmony, sung here unaccompanied by Peggy Seeger:

(Alternatively, here’s a choral arrangement performed by the Taverner Consort, Choir & Players.)

Despite the book’s title, some of the songs have no direct link to Christmas and are more generically about God’s provision or shepherding or about nature (e.g., “Oh, Watch the Stars”). Some seem to me to be about death, like the lovely “In the morning when I rise, (I’m gonna) tell my Jesus howdy-o” and the widely recorded Appalachian spiritual whose first verse is “Bright morning stars are rising . . . day is a-breaking in my soul.” “Shine Like a Star in the Morning,” too, joyfully anticipates heaven.

The songbook—both the original edition and the reissue—is illustrated by two-time Caldecott Medal winner Barbara Cooney. The illustrations are in black-and-white, and unfortunately all the figures, save for a few in a procession of children on one of the page spreads, respectfully drawn, are Anglo American, despite the collection’s strongest songs being from Black America. I don’t think this should detract from the usefulness of the resource, but I mention it for those who are sensitive to issues of representation.

On a related note, I will just add, for clarification, that these songs are from Anglo and African American traditions. There are other ethnic groups and peoples and communities in America who have been making Christmas music for a long time but are not represented in this collection, and that is largely because it is intentionally restricted to English-language songs—a sensible choice, I think, and still an immensely rich store. Keep in mind that the songbook is from 1953, and it does not claim to be comprehensive. But as America continues to become even more multicultural, I find that caveats are in order, as it’s not entirely clear from the book’s marketing.

Many of the songs from American Folk Songs for Christmas are featured in “Christmastide: An Art & Theology Playlist,” including brilliant renditions from Odetta: Christmas Spirituals (1960), in addition to some of the recordings featured above, plus others.

These traditional American carols from before the commercialization of Christmas are part of a national heritage of folk song. Many have been passed down orally for generations, others had been written out, and each time they’re shared they’re reinterpreted, but they still retain their original integrity. “The most important mission of the Library of Congress is to cultivate and sustain an American Memory,” writes folklorist Carl Lindahl [6], and thanks in part to Ruth Crawford Seeger, a good number of the folk songs in its archive have been rescued from obscurity and brought back into use. These Christmas songs are still lesser known than those of European origin, but I’ve seen some integrated into playlists, hymnals, caroling excursions, concerts, and children’s pageants and am encouraged!

Notes:

  1. Ruth Crawford Seeger, American Folk Songs for Christmas (New York: Doubleday, 1953; Northfield, Minnesota: Loomis House, 2013), 7.
  2. Sarah H. Watts, “American Folk Songs for Children: Ruth Crawford Seeger’s Contributions to Music Education,” Journal of Research in Music Education 56, no. 3 (October 2008): 243–44.
  3. Natalie Merchant, from the liner notes to The Sounding Joy: Christmas Songs in and out of the Ruth Crawford Seeger Songbook by Elizabeth Mitchell and friends (Washington, DC: Smithsonian Folkway Recordings, 2013), 10–11.
  4. Crawford Seeger, 7.
  5. Watch Night is one of several old-time American Christmas traditions Ruth describes in her introduction to the songbook, along with mumming in Boston, fireworks in the South and West, wild-turkey shoots in Texas, and so on.
  6. Carl Lindahl, ed. American Folktales from the Collections of the Library of Congress, 2 vols. (Armonk, New York: M. E. Sharpe, 2004), xxiii.

Christmas Playlist

In anticipation of the liturgical season of Christmas, I’ve created an extensive playlist of hymns, carols, and spirituals—old and new—that celebrate God’s being born in human flesh. Listen to “Christmastide: An Art & Theology Playlist” on Spotify.

The narratives of Jesus’s birth that we find in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke include both bursts of joyful exuberance, as with the angelic choir above a field of sheep, and quieter, more contemplative moments, such as when Mary pondered “all these things” in her heart (Luke 2:19). Jesus was born into darkness, so the story also involves social stigma, deprivation, military occupation, political greed, infanticide, asylum seeking—and the twinge of a future cross. So while the overall tone of this playlist is one of merriment, it does not shy away from some of the decidedly unfestive aspects of the first Christmas. And yet that God, in love, made himself vulnerable to suffering is precisely what makes the incarnation so glorious. He is not distant from human pains and woes but, rather, right in the midst of them, having experienced them firsthand.

The song selections reflect my personal taste for indie folk and newgrass, so they include, for instance, the Oh Hellos, Sufjan Stevens, Wilder Adkins, Branches, Beta Radio, the Brilliance, Lowland Hum, Penny and Sparrow, the Lower Lights, the Walking Roots Band, Folk Hymnal, Steve Thorngate, Sam P. Bush, Found Wandering, Ordinary Time, and Garrett Viggers.

Gospel songs performed by artists like Mahalia Jackson, the Staples Singers, Isaac Cates, Mariah Carey, Whitney Houston, Evelyn Simpson-Curenton, and Liz McComb also make an appearance, as do many African American spirituals, sung by Odetta, Harry Belafonte, Elizabeth Mitchell, and others. “Go Tell It on the Mountain” is the most widely known from that repertoire.

Also from America is the eighteenth-century carol “O Sight of Anguish” by Samson Occom, a Presbyterian minister and member of the Mohegan nation. New England roots musician Tim Eriksen sings it a cappella on Every Sound Below, but in this outdoor video he plays it on bajo sexto:

(Oh how I wish Ericksen’s marvelous Star in the East album were on Spotify, which features thirteen more songs in this vein!)

The Carols for a Cure album series, made up of contributions from Broadway casts, adds some theatricality. The cast of Nine, for example, sings “Los Peces en el Río,” a traditional Spanish carol in which Mary goes about her daily tasks—combing her tangled hair, washing Jesus’s diapers—as the fish in the river swim excitedly toward the newborn Savior. It’s sung by Antonio Banderas.

(Related post: “The Christmas Songwriters Project”)

In addition to this and the twelfth-century “Friendly Beasts,” another song that focuses on the animal characters at the nativity is the punchy “A Stick, a Carrot, and a String” by mewithoutYou, which sounds like it belongs on the Juno soundtrack. It’s wonderfully quirky.

Of course the Christmas playlist includes tons of classics—“Joy to the World!,” “Angels We Have Heard on High,” “Silent Night,” and so on—multiple renditions, in fact. (It’s too hard to choose just one!) There’s an upbeat swing arrangement of “O Holy Night,” but there’s also a more subdued, ethereal arrangement by Katie Melua, and several more besides. It’s fun to see how different artists interpret the same song.

The Irish folk rock band Rend Collective gives us a raucous arrangement of “Ding Dong Merrily on High,” retaining some of the archaicisms in the original lyrics but rewriting verse 3. A competing team at One Way UK’s 2017 Puppet and Creative Ministry Festival in Rugby, Warwickshire, used this song as the basis of a super-entertaining puppet performance! This made me smile.

You may be wondering, “Where’s all the choral music?!” While I do enjoy that genre, especially at Christmas, I’ve decided to exclude such songs in this list (1) to prevent it from becoming too unwieldy and (2) because I have to do a lot more searching and comparison to find the best recordings. I hope to release a choral Christmas playlist in December 2021.

If you’re looking for Advent music, see “Advent: An Art & Theology Playlist.” For the Christmas playlist, click on the image below.

Christmas Playlist (art by Yasuo Ueno)

Merry Christmas, friends! May you rejoice in Christ with exceeding great joy, he who “comes to make his blessings flow far as the curse is found.” Amen.

Cover art: Yasuo Ueno (Japanese, 1926–2005), A Multitude of Heavenly Hosts, 1986, natural pigments on silk

Roundup: Advent art meditations, new songs, and more

VISUAL MEDITATIONS:

“An Advent Visio Divina” by John Skillen, CIVA blog: John Skillen, author of Putting Art (Back) in Its Place, discusses four works of Advent-themed art from Italy, where he lives for part of each year leading retreats and seminars through the Studio for Art, Faith & History. He starts in Florence with The Adoration of the Shepherds altarpiece by Renaissance artist Domenico Ghirlandaio, which invites worshippers to follow the shepherds’ (and patrons’) example of adoring the Christ child. Then he moves to Orvieto, spotlighting Karin Coonrod’s directing a medieval mystery play in the city’s streets and churches. (For more on this, read Skillen’s excellent essay in Image no. 96, “Fierce Mercy: The Theater Art of Karin Coonrod.”) Advent is also about the second coming, so Luca Signorelli’s apocalyptic frescoes in the Chapel of San Brizio in Orvieto Cathedral are appropriate. Continuous, in some ways, with these late fifteenth-century paintings are the bronze reliefs on the central doors by Emilio Greco from 1962; they depict the seven works of mercy, the criteria, according to Matthew 25, by which humanity will be judged.

Mary carries the Light of the World
Actor Patrice Johnson portrays Mary, who carries the light of the world, in this contemporary adaptation of The Second Shepherds’ Play directed by Karin Coonrod. Photo: Massimo Achille.

Signorelli, Luca_Antichrist
Luca Signorelli (Italian, ca. 1441/45–1523), Sermon and Deeds of the Antichrist (detail), 1499–1502. Fresco, Chapel of San Brizio, Orvieto Cathedral, Italy. The Antichrist is shown as a puppet of the Evil One.

“Passion for the Light” by Alexandra Jean Davison, ArtWay: For last Sunday, the first day of Advent, Culture Care RDU Director Alexandra Jean Davison wrote this wonderful meditation on a set of contemporary sculptures by Jaume Plensa at the North Carolina Museum of Art, connecting them to the season we’re in. She begins, “We see three identical nudes filled with light, the face and arms covered with names and Scripture. Each figure sits at rest horizontally on one of the three walls which form a triangle. The closed eyes and mouth are covered with embossed text of the names of the eight gates of the ancient city walls of Jerusalem: New, Herod, Damascus, Golden (two doors: Gate of Repentance and Gate of Mercy), Lions, Jaffa, Zion, and Dung. Tattoo-like passages from the Song of Songs emerge from the heart upon the arms.” Read more at ArtWay.eu.

Plensa, Jaume_Doors of Jerusalem I
Jaume Plensa (Spanish, 1955–), Doors of Jerusalem I, 2006. Resin, stainless steel, and light, 47 1/4 × 62 3/16 × 80 11/16 in. (120 × 158 × 205 cm). North Carolina Museum of Art, Raleigh. Photo: Victoria Emily Jones.

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VIDEO: “Matthew 1:18-23” by SALT Project: The Emmy Award–winning production company SALT Project released a short video this week setting a reading from Matthew’s Gospel (“This is how the birth of Jesus came about . . .”) against evocative time lapses of blooming flowers. They’re generously offering it for free download and use in worship services, online or in-person. It could be used as an opener, as one of the morning’s scripture readings, or in a number of other ways.

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SONGS (the latter two released this week!):

“Christ Child’s Coming”: This simple Advent song is based on the African American spiritual “The Train Is a-Coming” (where “train” is a multivalent metaphor having to do with salvation). While a musician at Christ Church East Bay in Berkeley, California, Keith Watts adapted the lyrics to relate more explicitly to Advent: “Christ child’s coming, oh yeah!,” “Light is coming, oh yeah!,” and “Our king’s coming, oh yeah!” The song is sung here by Trinity Majorins, accompanied by her mom, Sarah [previously], on the piano and her dad, Philip [previously], on guitar.

“Weight/Wait” by Mike McMonagle: “Hope . . . flicker[s] underneath the weight of the wait.” Introducing this new demo, Mike McMonagle, a roots rock musician from Lancaster, Pennsylvania, wrote on Facebook about how the pandemic has created an extended season of waiting in the darkness this year, which has helped him to feel both pain and longing more keenly: “For the past couple of months, I’ve found myself processing all the ups & downs of the current life experience in step with what I’d label the deepest dive into the Advent season that I’ve ever done. All my life, Advent was just a church-y word for rat race otherwise known as The Holidays. There were happy hours, shopping trips, family outings – things that made it hard to focus on the Advent season for more than an hour each Sunday. This year has been different.”

“In Distress” by the Pharaoh Sisters: Written by Austin Pfeiffer and Jared Meyer and based on Psalms 120 and 121, this song blends Latin and Appalachian folk music influences and has lyrics in both English and Spanish. “The song’s creation began in the spiritual angst after the 2016 [US presidential] election,” Pfeiffer writes. “Calling on believers to put their hope in Christ as King, the song has broad themes of Kingdom orientation, raises questions about social divisions, but also leans into Advent ideas, specifically Isaiah 9.” It premiered at the 2017 Presbyterian Church in America (PCA) General Assembly but didn’t end up fitting on the Pharaoh Sisters’ 2020 debut album, Civil Dawn. “Now as our nation plunges deeper into distress and unrest, be it political and/or social, the band is eager to release the song for Advent 2020.”

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ONLINE PANEL: “Religious Art,” December 9, 6:00–7:15 p.m. London time (1:00–2:15 p.m. ET): “The relationship between religion and art is ancient and complex, varying across religious traditions and cultures. In this event, Mehreen Chida-Razvi, Ben Quash, and Lieke Wijnia consider how these traditions of religious art differ and what role art plays in religion today. How should we display religious art? Might art be a way of opening interfaith dialogue? And has art itself become a kind of religion?” This free Zoom event is organized by the Forum for Philosophy and the Department of Philosophy, Logic and Scientific Method at the London School of Economics. I’ll be attending! (Note: The promotional image below is David LaChapelle’s Last Supper.) Update, 12/10/20: The panel discussion has been archived and can be viewed here.

Religious Art Zoom panel

Whole World in His Hands (Artful Devotion)

Christ in Glory (Gospel-book of Bamberg Cathedral)
“Christ in Mandorla with evangelists,” Reichenau, Germany, early 11th century. BSB Clm 4454, fol. 20v, Bayerische Staatsbibliothek, Munich.

Oh come, let us sing to the LORD;
    let us make a joyful noise to the rock of our salvation!
Let us come into his presence with thanksgiving;
    let us make a joyful noise to him with songs of praise!
For the LORD is a great God,
    and a great King above all gods.
In his hand are the depths of the earth;
    the heights of the mountains are his also.
The sea is his, for he made it,
    and his hands formed the dry land.
Oh come, let us worship and bow down;
    let us kneel before the LORD, our Maker!
For he is our God,
    and we are the people of his pasture,
    and the sheep of his hand.

—Psalm 95:1–7

This is the Psalm reading for the last Sunday of the liturgical year, Christ the King Sunday. I’ve paired it with an Ottonian miniature from around 1015, which shows Christ, framed by a mandorla (an almond-shaped aureole), standing in a branched tree of life. The gold-leaf outline of this glory cloud encompasses heaven (Caelus, the top figure) and earth (Terra, aka Terrus, at bottom), two realms connected by Christ himself. (Earth is his footstool! That is, part of his throne.) He holds a globe in his right hand and is surrounded by symbols of the four evangelists (the tetramorph)—each supported by a water nymph representing one of the four rivers of paradise—and Sol (sun) and Luna (moon). I love how this image emphasizes the life-giving nature of Christ’s rule, and how it extends over all of creation.

From our limited human perspective, it can be hard to see the divine reality that this artist is pointing to. It sometimes doesn’t feel like Jesus is on the throne, holding together everyone and everything in love. But I look at that little orb, and I think of all the sin and suffering and love and grace and stress and beauty swirling around in that one small part of the cosmos, and I see that it’s rendered in precious gold, and is gripped firmly by the hand of God, who—zoom out—is “a great King above all,” who made the heights and the depths and who gives us his word and indeed his very self, a tree of life for the healing of the nations. As we head into Advent, may we not lose this vision of the Christ who reigns.

More about the art: In the tenth and eleventh centuries, the Benedictine abbey on the island of Reichenau in Lake Constance in southern Germany was the site of one of Europe’s largest and most influential schools of manuscript illumination, known as the Reichenau school. The painting above is from a Gospel-book produced there, commissioned by Holy Roman Emperor Henry II (r. 1002–24) for the cathedral he founded in Bamberg. The book is now housed at the Bayerische Staatsbibliothek (Bavarian State Library) in Munich, along with two other similar illuminated manuscripts from Bamberg Cathedral: the Gospel-book of Otto III (Clm 4453) and the evangeliary of Henry II (Clm 4452). Find out more about this particular manuscript at the World Digital Library. You can also browse the images here by selecting the links in the “Content” sidebar at the left.

For other artworks from Art & Theology that show, in a literal manner, “the whole world in [God’s] hands,” see this medieval Pisan fresco with signs of the zodiac; How God loves his People all over the World by John Muafangejo; Creation of the World by Lyuba Yatskiv; Salvator Mundi by Leonardo da Vinci, a common image type; and a Florentine panel painting of God the Father.

Do you know of any good nonliteral images that say to you, “The world is in God’s hands”? That is, a visual artwork that helps you sense God’s sovereignty? I often fall back on traditional visual conceptualizations of theological teachings like this, but I’d like to expand my repertoire!

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SONG: “He’s Got the Whole World in His Hands,” African American spiritual

There are hundreds of professional recordings and live performance videos of this traditional song. It was first published in the paperbound hymnal Spirituals Triumphant, Old and New in 1927 and became an international pop hit in 1957 when it was recorded by thirteen-year-old English singer Laurie London.

First off, I want to feature a fairly recent two-part video compilation released by TrueExclusives. Back in March, as the first wave of the coronavirus hit the US, Tyler Perry posted a video of himself singing one verse of “He’s Got the Whole World in His Hands” to provide a word of assurance in the face of rising death tolls and social isolation. He called on his fellow musicians and other friends to likewise video-record a verse or two, in whatever key or style they wished—just a simple, unpolished phone recording—tagging it #tylerperrychallenge. These were then collected into two videos, a string of contributions from people like Mariah Carey, Usher, Patti Labelle, Jennifer Hudson, Shirley Caesar, LeAnn Rimes, Aubrey Logan, Israel Houghton, and many more. For a list of all the singers with time stamps, see the comment by YouTube user benzmusiczone for the first video and the comment by The Cherie Amour Show for the second.

Some participants sing in other languages—for example, Nicole Bus in Dutch, Jencarlos Canela in Spanish. Others adapt the lyrics to more specifically address the context of our global pandemic. Kelly Rowland, for example, sings, “He’s got the doctors and the nurses in his hands.” Stevie Mackey names specific countries and virus hot spots. And not only does God have the itty bitty babies in his hands, Ptosha Storey reminds us; he also has the elderly. BeBe Winans spans the cosmic to the small in his verse, emphasizing that God’s sovereign care is both expansive and intimate: “He’s got the moon and the stars in his hands / He’s got Pluto and Mars in his hands / And as I’m sitting in this car, I’m in his hands / He’s got the whole world in his hands.”

I love me some harmonies, so I particularly enjoyed hearing sisters Chloe and Halle Bailey (2:32) and The Walls Group (16:54).

What follows are a handful of other renditions I want to highlight.

Jeanne Lee [previously], 1961:

Ruth Brown, 1962 (classic gospel):

A live 2006 performance in Johannesburg—with hand motions!—by the African Children’s Choir:

A lush choral and orchestral arrangement by Mack Wilberg, featuring Alex Boyé [previously] and the Mormon Tabernacle Choir, from 2010:

Similarly lush, a duet performed by operatic sopranos Jessye Norman and Kathleen Battle, backed by the Metropolitan Opera Chorus, the New York Philharmonic, and the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra. The performance was conducted by James Levine at Carnegie Hall in 1990 and is included on the album Spirituals in Concert (1991). The arrangement is by Robert de Cormier:


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 29 (Reign of Christ), cycle A, click here.

Remember Me (Artful Devotion)

Picasso, Pablo_The Old Guitarist
Pablo Picasso (Spanish, 1881–1973), The Old Guitarist, 1904. Oil on panel, 48 3/8 × 32 1/2 in. (122.9 × 82.6 cm). Art Institute of Chicago.

Remember me, O LORD, with the favour that thou bearest unto thy people: O visit me with thy salvation.

—Psalm 106:4 (KJV)

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SONG: “Sing Your Song Over Me / Do Lord, Remember” by Tim Coons, on Potomac (2012)

In his Potomac album, Tim Coons combines American folk songs—mostly African American spirituals, blues, and gospel—with originals in the same track. Track 4 is based on “Do Lord,” Roud 11971. I actually learned this spiritual not in church but in Girl Scouts! Notable recordings include those by Mississippi John Hurt [previously] and Johnny Cash.

More recently Tim has been working on collaborations with his wife Betony, a visual artist, under the name Giants and Pilgrims [previously].

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The Art Institute of Chicago, which owns Picasso’s The Old Guitarist, writes,

Pablo Picasso made The Old Guitarist while working in Barcelona. In the paintings of his Blue Period (1901–04), the artist restricted himself to a cold, monochromatic blue palette, flattened forms, and emotional, psychological themes of human misery and alienation related to the work of such artists as Edvard Munch and Paul Gauguin. The elongated, angular figure of the blind musician also relates to Picasso’s interest in Spanish art and, in particular, the great 16th-century artist El Greco. The image reflects the twenty-two-year-old Picasso’s personal struggle and sympathy for the plight of the downtrodden; he knew what it was like to be poor, having been nearly penniless during all of 1902.


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 23, cycle A, click here.

Wade in the Water (Artful Devotion)

Hambling, Maggi_Wall of Water II
Maggi Hambling (British, 1945–), Wall of Water II, 2011. Oil on canvas, 78 × 89 in. (198.1 × 226.1 cm). Photo: Douglas Atfield.

Then the angel of God who was going before the host of Israel moved and went behind them, and the pillar of cloud moved from before them and stood behind them, coming between the host of Egypt and the host of Israel. And there was the cloud and the darkness. And it lit up the night without one coming near the other all night.

Then Moses stretched out his hand over the sea, and the LORD drove the sea back by a strong east wind all night and made the sea dry land, and the waters were divided. And the people of Israel went into the midst of the sea on dry ground, the waters being a wall to them on their right hand and on their left. The Egyptians pursued and went in after them into the midst of the sea, all Pharaoh’s horses, his chariots, and his horsemen. And in the morning watch the LORD in the pillar of fire and of cloud looked down on the Egyptian forces and threw the Egyptian forces into a panic, clogging their chariot wheels so that they drove heavily. And the Egyptians said, “Let us flee from before Israel, for the LORD fights for them against the Egyptians.”

Then the LORD said to Moses, “Stretch out your hand over the sea, that the water may come back upon the Egyptians, upon their chariots, and upon their horsemen.” So Moses stretched out his hand over the sea, and the sea returned to its normal course when the morning appeared. And as the Egyptians fled into it, the LORD threw the Egyptians into the midst of the sea. The waters returned and covered the chariots and the horsemen; of all the host of Pharaoh that had followed them into the sea, not one of them remained. But the people of Israel walked on dry ground through the sea, the waters being a wall to them on their right hand and on their left.

Thus the LORD saved Israel that day from the hand of the Egyptians, and Israel saw the Egyptians dead on the seashore. Israel saw the great power that the LORD used against the Egyptians, so the people feared the LORD, and they believed in the LORD and in his servant Moses.

—Exodus 14:19–31

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SONG: “Wade in the Water,” African American spiritual

There have been many, many performances of this song over the years. For a nice, concise history of recordings, from gospel and doowop and choral to modern jazz, R&B, heavy rock, and northern soul, see this article by Mike Hobart. Below is a handful I’ve found and enjoy.

A gospel version by Brother John Sellers from 1959, driven by piano:

A choral arrangement by Paul T. Kwami, performed by the Fisk Jubilee Singers in 2019 (the soloist isn’t credited, but she’s amazing!):

Pegasis is a vocal trio of sisters from the Dominican Republic, formerly performing under the name The Peguero Sisters. Here they’re accompanied by guitar and shaker (this is the YouTube version, but the harmonies are cleaner on their 2016 album recording):

The Petersens apply their signature bluegrass stylings in their rendition, performed a few weeks ago in this video but also on their 2019 album Homesick for a Country:

According to oral lore, Harriet Tubman used the song “Wade in the Water” to communicate strategy to slaves traveling the Underground Railroad: its coded language alerted freedom seekers that bounty hunters were on their trail with bloodhounds and that they should jump into the river so that the dogs couldn’t track their scent. This popular myth about the song has not been confirmed, and the National Park Service, which preserves historical sites associated with the Underground Railroad and promotes research on the topic, suggests that it’s probably not true.

It is known, however, that it was sung at river baptisms, and still is, as the Exodus is seen as an archetype of baptism, of redemption through water. Not only that, but the song also draws on the pool of Bethesda passage in John 5, where people gathered to be healed: “For an angel went down at a certain season into the pool, and troubled the water: whosoever then first after the troubling of the water stepped in was made whole of whatsoever disease he had” (v. 4). (This verse is found in some early New Testament manuscripts but not the earliest and is therefore omitted from several modern translations.)

In the documentary God’s Greatest Hits, pastor and gospel recording artist Wintley Phipps says, “‘Wade in the Water,’ to me, . . . means people who are afraid of moving forward, progressing, taking a step, and facing uncertainty—go ahead, wade in the water. Take that step. As terrifying as it may seem at that very moment, it’s gonna be alright, and the miracle we seek is gonna happen.”

There’s the famous song “Bridge Over Troubled Water.” Well, in Exodus, God carves out a bridge through troubled water! Imagine walls of water standing multiple stories high on either side of you, filled with tiger sharks and other marine life. And you have to cross the sandy bottom in faith that those walls will hold up until you reach the other side.

“Wade in the Water” affirms that God is going to stir things up; he’s going to do something big. Just like he did when he brought Israel up out of Egypt.

For other songs based on the this week’s lectionary reading from Exodus, see my coverage of “Carol of the Exodus” and “Oh Mary, Don’t You Weep.”

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Maggi Hambling is one of Britain’s most significant painters and sculptors. Her nine “Walls of Water” paintings were made in 2010–11 and were first exhibited in 2014 at the National Gallery in London. Vast, intense, and energetic, they were inspired by her experience of giant waves crashing onto the seawall at Southwold, Suffolk, where she lives. “Through turbulence and exuberant colour, Hambling continues to affirm painting’s immediacy, saying, ‘The crucial thing that only painting can do is to make you feel as if you’re there while it’s being created – as if it’s happening in front of you’” (source).

Maggi Hambling (British, 1945–), Wall of Water V, 2011. Oil on canvas, 78 × 89 in. (198.1 × 226.1 cm). Photo: Douglas Atfield.

View other paintings from the series at Artsy.net.


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 19, cycle A, click here.

Roundup: Ecotheology, “Kadosh,” black church music, and more

I didn’t post an Artful Devotion this week, as I struggled to satisfactorily put together image and song for any of the readings, but I’ve now cycled through all three lectionary years on the blog, which are stored in the archives. For content on Sunday’s lectionary reading from the psalms, Psalm 133, see “When Brothers Dwell in Unity (Artful Devotion)” (featuring a Chicago mural by William Walker and a joyful new psalm setting from the Psalter Project); see also the poem “Aaron’s Beard” by Eugene Peterson.

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NEW ALBUM: Quarantine Sessions by Eric Marshall: Eric Marshall is the frontman of and songwriter for the meditative art rock band Young Oceans. During the COVID-19 quarantine he recorded eleven of the band’s old songs acoustically in his home studio—just his voice and guitar—and has released them digitally on Bandcamp. Several music artists have been making lo-fi records during this season, and I’m digging it!

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ART COMMENTARIES from ART/S AND THEOLOGY AUSTRALIA

Art/s and Theology Australia is an online publication that aims to provoke public reflection and promote research on conversations between the arts and theology, predominantly in Australian contexts. Here are a few articles from the recent past that I particularly enjoyed.

Galovic, Michael_Creation of Light in the Heavens
Michael Galovic (Serbian Australian, 1949–), Creation of Lights in the Heavens, n.d.

^^ “Jesus Dreaming: A Theological Reaction to Michael Galovic’s Creation of Lights in the Heavens by Merv Duffy: Creation of Lights in the Heavens by contemporary artist and iconographer Michael Galovic is an authentically Australian reading and rewriting of one of the Byzantine creation mosaics at Monreale Cathedral. Like its visual referent, it shows the Logos-Christ seated on the cosmos, hanging the sun in place (medieval artists tended to show God the Son, who is depictable, as Creator), but the gold background, used in icons to represent the eternal uncreated light of God, is replaced with dots, curves, and circles that represent the Dreamtime of Aboriginal theology, the origin of time and eternity.

Dunstan, Penny_Sixteen Earth Bowls
Penny Dunstan, Sixteen Earth Bowls, 2018. Installed at Holy Trinity Anglican Church, Merriwa, for the Festival of the Fleeces.

^^ “Sixteen Earth Bowls” by Penny Dunstan: Soil scientist and visual artist Penny Dunstan has crafted bowls out of topsoil from rehabilitated coal mines in the Hunter Valley in Warkworth, New South Wales, which she exhibits in churches, among other places. “Making earth bowls is a way of thinking about my ethical responses to soil use in a post-mining landscape,” she writes. “It is a way of thinking with my heart and not just my head. As I work with each Hunter Valley topsoil, I come to understand each as an individual, a special part of God’s creation. Each soil behaves according to its own chemical nature and historical past when I fashion it into a bowl shape. . . .

“These soils, full of tiny lives, are responsible for growing our food, making our air and storing atmospheric carbon. Our very lives as humans on the earth depend on them. By fashioning these soils into bowls and placing them in sacred places, I hope to remind us to honour the earth that we stand upon, that earth that speaks to us by pushing back at our feet.” (Note: See also Rod Pattenden’s ArtWay visual meditation on Dunstan’s work.)

Finnie, Andrew_The Body of Christ, the Tree of Life
Andrew Finnie (Australian, 1957–), The Body of Christ, The Tree of Life, 2014. Pigment print on Hahnemuhle paper, 78 × 182 cm.

^^ “The Cross and the Tree of Life” by Rod Pattenden: “One of the pressing questions for the Church is how we see Christology being renewed in the face of climate change and the potential for the quality of life on this planet to decline,” writes art historian Rod Pattenden [previously]. “Who is Jesus for us in the midst of the profound changes that are occurring to the earth, water, and air of our world? . . .

Andrew Finnie’s image The Body of Christ, The Tree of Life”—a large-scale ecotheological digital collage—“is an attempt to re-imagine the figure of Christ in conversation with the earth and the networks that sustain human life in all its thriving beauty. Here, the traditional figure of the cross has become entwined in the roots of the tree, a tree of life that is giving form to the variety and beauty of the natural world.”

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SONG: “Kadosh” by Wally Brath, sung by Nikki Lerner: The Kedushah is part of the Amidah, the central prayer of the Jewish liturgy. Its first verse is taken from the song of the seraphim in Isaiah 6:3: “Holy, holy, holy, is the LORD of hosts; the whole earth is full of his glory!” (Kadosh means “holy.”) In this original composition for voice, piano, and string quartet, Wally Brath [previously] has combined this Hebrew exclamation from the book of the prophets with an English excerpt from the Lord’s Prayer taught by Jesus in Matthew 6:10: “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” [HT: Multicultural Worship Leaders Network]

The performance captured in this video, featuring Nikki Lerner, took place at Winona Lake Grace Brethren Church in Winona Lake, Indiana, on July 11, 2020. A full list of performers is given in the YouTube description.

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CONCERT FILM: Amen! Music of the Black Church: Recorded before a live audience at the Second Baptist Church in Bloomington, Indiana, and airing April 26, this PBS special explores the rich traditions, historical significance, and meaning of black church music. Dr. Raymond Wise leads the Indiana University African American Choral Ensemble in twenty-one spirituals, hymns, and gospel songs, showing how black church music is not monolithic. He demonstrates the stylistic spectrum you can find among black church communities using a song text derived from Psalm 24:7–10 (“Lift up your heads . . .”): one performed with the European aesthetic preferred in more affluent congregations, one a classical-gospel hybrid, and one pure gospel. One thing I learned from the program is that there is a tradition of shape-note singing in the black church! (See, e.g., The Colored Sacred Harp.) [HT: Global Christian Worship]

Music of the Black Church

Here’s the set list:

  • “We’ve Come This Far by Faith” by Albert Goodson
  • “Kumbaya”
  • “Run, Mary, Run”
  • “Oh Freedom”
  • “What a Happy Time” by J. M. Henson and J. T. Cook
  • “Amazing Grace” by John Newton
  • “Ain’t Got Time to Die” by Hall Johnson
  • “I’ve Been ’Buked”
  • “Lift Up Your Heads” by Emma Louise Ashford, arr. Lani Smith
  • “Lift Up Your Heads” by Clinton Hubert Utterbach
  • “Lift Up Your Heads, All Ye Gates” by Raymond Wise
  • “Glory, Glory, Hallelujah”
  • “Jesus on the Mainline”
  • “I Need Thee Every Hour” by Annie S. Hawks and Robert Lowry
  • “You Can’t Beat God Giving” by Doris Akers
  • “Come to Jesus” by E. R. Latta and J. H. Tenney
  • “We Shall Overcome” by Charles Tindley
  • “Lord, Keep Me Day by Day” by Eddie Williams
  • “Lord, Do It for Me” by James Cleveland
  • “Oh Happy Day” by Edwin Hawkins
  • “I’ve Got a Robe” by Raymond Wise
  • “Hallelujah, Praise the Lord, Amen” by Raymond Wise

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INTERVIEW: Last September The Cultivating Project interviewed Malcolm Guite [previously] on his latest poetry collection After Prayer, the poet-priest George Herbert, the life of a writer, art as faithful service, doubt and despair, his Ordinary Saints collaboration with Bruce Herman and J.A.C. Redford, his friendship with Michael Ward (author of Planet Narnia), the blessing of seasons (both earthly and liturgical), and making room for joy. The interview includes three of Guite’s poems: “Christ’s side-piercing spear,” “A Portrait of the Artist,” and “St. Augustine and the Reapers.”

Herman, Bruce_Malcolm Guite
Bruce Herman (American, 1953–), Malcolm Guite, 2016. Oil on panel with gold leaf, 30 × 30 in.

Behold That Star (Artful Devotion)

Hunter, Clementine_The Annunciation and the Adoration of the Wise Men
Clementine Hunter (American, 1886/87–1988), The Annunciation and the Adoration of the Wise Men, 1957. Oil on board, 48 × 78 in. Photo courtesy of Neal Auction Company.

Arise, shine, for your light has come,
and the glory of the LORD has risen upon you.

—Isaiah 60:1

May the kings of Tarshish and of the coastlands
render him tribute;
may the kings of Sheba and Seba
bring gifts!
May all kings fall down before him,
all nations serve him!

—Psalm 72:10–11

Now after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea in the days of Herod the king, behold, wise men from the east came to Jerusalem, saying, “Where is he who has been born king of the Jews? For we saw his star when it rose and have come to worship him.” When Herod the king heard this, he was troubled, and all Jerusalem with him; and assembling all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Christ was to be born. They told him, “In Bethlehem of Judea, for so it is written by the prophet:

‘And you, O Bethlehem, in the land of Judah,
are by no means least among the rulers of Judah;
for from you shall come a ruler
who will shepherd my people Israel.’”

Then Herod summoned the wise men secretly and ascertained from them what time the star had appeared. And he sent them to Bethlehem, saying, “Go and search diligently for the child, and when you have found him, bring me word, that I too may come and worship him.” After listening to the king, they went on their way. And behold, the star that they had seen when it rose went before them until it came to rest over the place where the child was. When they saw the star, they rejoiced exceedingly with great joy. And going into the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother, and they fell down and worshiped him. Then, opening their treasures, they offered him gifts, gold and frankincense and myrrh. And being warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they departed to their own country by another way.

—Matthew 2:1–12

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SONG: “Behold That Star” or “Behold the Star” | Negro spiritual | Performed by various artists (see below)

I first heard this song years ago on Pete Seeger’s Traditional Christmas Carols (1967; reissued 1989), one of my favorite Christmas albums.

William L. Dawson’s choral arrangement, recorded by the St. Olaf Choir in 1997, has become the standard for choirs all over the country. The recording features, as soloist, African American operatic soprano Marvis Martin:

For a gospel version, check out Fred Waring and the Pennsylvanians’ album Christmas Time (1955, reissued 2015), which combines the song with “Carol of the Bells”:

Or the version by James Cleveland with the Angelic Choir and the Cleveland Singers on Merry Christmas (1969, reissued 1987):

One of the most upbeat gospel renditions is by the Patterson Singers from 1963:

There’s also a much slower R&B rendition from Black Nativity: A Gospel Christmas Musical Experience, a musical produced by Dominion Entertainment Group in Atlanta and adapted from the 1961 song play by Langston Hughes. (“Behold That Star” is not in the Hughes original.) I couldn’t find who arranged this version, but the performers are Lawrence Flowers, Benjamin Moore, and Brandin Jay. Oddly (and perhaps under the influence of the song “Rise Up, Shepherd, and Follow”), this production has the song being sung by shepherds rather than wise men:

You can also find numerous recordings of “Behold That Star” being performed by children’s choirs, its simplicity making it accessible to young ages. It was one of several spirituals and other classics the kiddos at my church sang in our 2018 Christmas play (see video below). I’m at the piano playing from the African American Heritage Hymnal, no. 216, transposed down three half-steps to D; the arrangement is by Nolan Williams Jr. (I’m still woefully lacking in the ability to embellish in a gospel style, I’m afraid!)

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Clementine (pronounced KLEH-mehn-teen) Hunter was a self-taught Afro-Creole artist known for depicting life in the Cane River region of central Louisiana, especially in and around Melrose Plantation, where she worked as a farm laborer for most of her life, even into old age. She didn’t begin painting until she was in her fifties, and she would do it at night on whatever surfaces she could find—window shades, jugs, bottles, gourds, snuff boxes, iron pots.

During her early art career she would sell her paintings at the local drugstore for a dollar or less, but by the time of her death, her paintings were selling to dealers for thousands. She received significant recognition during her lifetime, including from US presidents. Today her work can be found in the collections of the Smithsonian, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, the Minneapolis Institute of Art, and other prestigious institutions.

In the Christmas-/Epiphanytide painting reproduced above, Christ is born on Melrose Plantation in the southern US, surrounded by sheep and chickens and horses and palm trees. On the left a black angel leads a pregnant black Mary down a footpath to a farmhouse, while on the other side Mary sits on a stool with the newborn Jesus in her lap and Joseph behind her, as three men in wide-brimmed hats come bearing gourds as gifts. Above the scene is the giant yellow star that led these men to the spot, and two white-clad angels (with a scattered choir of others) trumpeting the good news of the Savior’s birth.

The magi were a subject Hunter turned to in many of her paintings. Here’s another fine example:

Hunter, Clementine_Magi Bearing Gifts
Clementine Hunter (American, 1886/87–1988), Untitled (Magi Bearing Gifts), ca. 1970–80. Paint on an albany slip whiskey jug, approx. 10 in. (25.4 cm) high. Smithsonian American Art Museum, Washington, DC.

Hunter, Clementine_Magi Bearing Gifts

I love how Hunter was able to see the sacred in the everyday—God’s grand story unfolding in her immediate environs. It reminds me of a poem by Wendell Berry from A Timbered Choir that begins,

Remembering that it happened once,
We cannot turn away the thought,
As we go out, cold, to our barns
Toward the long night’s end, that we
Ourselves are living in the world
It happened in when it first happened,
That we ourselves, opening a stall
(A latch thrown open countless times
Before), might find them breathing there,
Foreknown: the Child bedded in straw,
The mother kneeling over Him,
The husband standing in belief
He scarcely can believe . . .

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For Artful Devotions from previous years’ feast of the Epiphany, see “‘And nations shall come to your light . . .’” (featuring a Mughal miniature and an Arabic hymn) and “Three Kings Day” (featuring a Puerto Rican bulto and aguinaldo).

Also, see Christine Valters Paintner’s spiritual reflections on the story of Epiphany as an archetypal journey we are all invited to make. Her advice?

  1. Follow the star to where it leads.
  2. Embark on the journey, however long or difficult.
  3. Open yourself to wonder along the way.
  4. Bow down at the holy encounters in messy places.
  5. Carry your treasures and give them away freely.
  6. Listen to the wisdom of dreams.
  7. Go home by another way.

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

To view all the Revised Common Lectionary scripture readings for Epiphany, cycle A, click here.

Balm in Gilead (Artful Devotion)

Hirsch, Joseph_Lynch Family
Joseph Hirsch (American, 1910–1981), Lynch Family, 1946. Oil on canvas, 35 × 33 in. (88.9 × 83.8 cm). Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, Kansas City, Missouri. [zoom in]

My joy is gone; grief is upon me;
my heart is sick within me.
Behold, the cry of the daughter of my people
from the length and breadth of the land:
“Is the Lord not in Zion?
Is her King not in her?”
. . .
“The harvest is past, the summer is ended,
and we are not saved.”
For the wound of the daughter of my people is my heart wounded;
I mourn, and dismay has taken hold on me.

Is there no balm in Gilead?
Is there no physician there?
Why then has the health of the daughter of my people
not been restored?

—Jeremiah 8:18–22

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SONG: “There Is a Balm in Gilead” | Negro spiritual | Arranged and performed by Archie Shepp (tenor sax), feat. Jeanne Lee, on Blasé (1969, reissued 2009)

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In this coming Sunday’s lectionary reading from the Prophets, Jeremiah grieves over the suffering of his people. “Is there no balm in Gilead?” he cries. Gilead was a region in ancient Palestine, east of the Jordan River. Now it is known primarily as the fictional locale of two famous contemporary novels, but back then it was known for the soothing, aromatic plant resins produced there, which were used medicinally. In Israel’s desolation, though, they could feel no balm—not even in the place where it was said to abound.

The anonymous writer(s) of the slave song featured above knew communal suffering well. He or she taps into Jeremiah’s poetic grief, extracting the “balm in Gilead” expression but bending it toward hope. There is a balm, the song attests, albeit wearily, through tears. And this balm makes the wounded whole. Archie Shepp’s soulful arrangement, with vocals by Jeanne Lee, express that woundedness and yearning for deliverance so poignantly.

As a visual point of focus, I’ve chosen Joseph Hirsch’s Lynch Family, a forward extension of the history of African American oppression. The gallery label for the painting reads,

Joseph Hirsch painted Lynch Family as a response to racial disturbances in the South in 1946. That year the number of lynchings rose from an all-time low in January to a fevered pitch by August. Citizens across the country urged President Truman and Congress to end the horrors. To capture the tragedy of Lynch Family, Hirsch presented a mother with her baby, presumably survivors of a lynching victim, in abstracted surroundings. The painting focuses on the mother’s intense yet restrained hold on her defiant child while she turns to hide her anguish. The blue background floats around the figures. It both highlights their pain and contrasts with the sheer beauty of Hirsch’s painterly technique.

Though painted in the 1940s, this work bears strong relevance for today. The figures could be any black mother and child left to grieve the loss of husband and father—to prison, or to death by shooting, choking, or other form of brutality.

For another painting by Hirsch from the blog, see “Stations of the Cross at the Smithsonian American Art Museum.”


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 20, cycle C, click here.

Like a Fountain (Artful Devotion)

Chodakowska, Malgorzata_Primavera III
Małgorzata Chodakowska (Polish, 1965–), Primavera III, 2014. Bronze fountain, 220 cm tall. (In the background are Angel and Woman with Ice.)

The LORD will guide you continually,
and satisfy your needs in parched places,
and make your bones strong;
and you shall be like a watered garden,
like a spring of water,
whose waters do not fail.

—Isaiah 58:11 NRSV

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SONG: “I’ve Got Peace Like a River” | Negro spiritual | Performed by Wally Macnow, with Lucy Simpson, Peter Amidon, Mary Alice Amidon, Bill Destler, Tom McHenry, and Caroline Paton, on Sharon Mountain Harmony: A Golden Ring of Gospel (1982)

I love Wally Macnow’s ebullient rendition of this Negro spiritual for Folk Legacy Records. It’s a different tune than I’m accustomed to; for the more widely recognized melody, check out, for example, Lynda Randle.

The phrase “peace like a river” appears in Isaiah 48:18 and 66:12, and between those verses is another one, above, in which Isaiah relays God’s promise to water our souls in times of drought and, what’s more, to make us into springs whose water can’t help but bubble up to the surface and spill over.

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Małgorzata Chodakowska is a Polish artist who has lived in Germany since 1991. She is renowned for her “water sculptures,” (usually nude) figures carved in oak wood and then cast in bronze and designed for water. Chodakowska creates unique paths for the water, specific to each sculpture—it might fan out from the waist like a tutu, for example, expand from the back like angels’ wings, or shoot every which way around an orb, suggesting the movement of celestial bodies. Browse her work at http://www.skulptur-chodakowska.de/en/fountains/, or view a sampling in the video below.

Thanks to Tamara Hill Murphy for introducing me to Chodakowska’s work.


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 16, cycle C, click here.