This Little Light of Mine (Artful Devotion)

Schalcken, Godfried_A Boy Blowing on a Firebrand
Godfried Schalcken (Dutch, 1643–1706), A Boy Blowing on a Firebrand to Light a Candle, 1692–98. Oil on canvas, 75 × 63.5 cm. Scottish National Gallery, Edinburgh. Photo: Antonia Reeve.

You are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hidden. Nor do people light a lamp and put it under a basket, but on a stand, and it gives light to all in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven.

—Matthew 5:14–16

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SONG: “This Little Light of Mine,” American folk song, early twentieth century

[DaNell Daymon and Greater Works, feat. Kenisha Blackman, on America’s Got Talent, episode 1204, in 2017]

“This Little Light of Mine” is often attributed, with a date of 1920, to composer Harry Dixon Loes (1895–1965), a white man from the Midwestern United States; sometimes Avis B. Christiansen (1895–1985), a regular collaborator of his, is credited as lyricist. But according to NPR, “researchers at Moody Bible Institute, where Loes taught for 21 years, say they found no evidence he wrote the song or claimed to write it.” Other sources call the song a Negro spiritual, but because it doesn’t appear in any collection of plantation songs from the nineteenth century, that’s probably not true. It’s possible either the lyrics or melody or both originated in postbellum African American communities, and that Loes acted as an adapter/arranger. Either way, documentation is lacking. For more on the song’s attribution difficulties, see this blog post by the Rev. Daniel Harper, who concludes that it’s probably best to cite the song’s author as “Unknown.”

The earliest recording of the song is a version sung by Doris McMurray, a black inmate at Gorree State Farm prison in Huntsville, Texas, which music preservationists John and Ruby Lomax collected during their 1939 Southern States recording trip. Thereafter it became popular on a wider scale in both the black gospel and white folk traditions.

In 1952 it was recorded by the Ward Singers with a bridge—again, whose authorship is unknown:

On Monday, he gave me the gift of love;
On Tuesday, peace came from above.
On Wednesday, he told me to have more faith;
On Thursday, he gave me a little more grace.
On Friday, he told me to watch and pray;
On Saturday, he told me just what to say.
On Sunday, he gave me power divine
Just to let my little light shine.

This version is the one sung by folkies Pete Seeger and Bob Gibson.

During the 1950s and ’60s, “This Little Light of Mine” became an important civil rights anthem, a special favorite of Fannie Lou Hamer’s. The lyrics were adapted by Zilphia Horton, among others, to suit the context of freedom marches, etc. In 1959 Moe Asch of Folkway Records recorded an impromptu session at a Highlander Center workshop for activists in Tennessee, featuring a trio of high school students from the Montgomery Improvement Association: Mary Ethel Dozier, Minnie Hendrick, and Gladys Burnette Carter. The guitar accompaniment is by Guy Carawan, and the bass voice is Sam Collier of the Nashville Quartet from American Baptist Theological Seminary:

They sing, “Deep down in the South, I’m gonna let it shine . . .” and “We’ve got the light of freedom . . . God gave it to us . . .”

Bettie Mae Fikes, a song leader from the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) in Selma, Alabama, markedly inserted the names of oppressors into the verses, such as Selma’s then sheriff: “Tell Jim Clark, I’m gonna let it shine!” Or “Tell the KKK,” or “our president.” Bold lines like these really bring out the defiance aspect of the song.

Although a piece of Americana, “This Little Light of Mine” caught on worldwide. It is part of the repertoire of the Soweto Gospel Choir from South Africa, who sings it in English and Zulu (“M’Lilo Vutha Mathanjeni”), often in medley with “If You Ever Needed the Lord”:

The song is also sometimes sung in medley with Jester Hairston’s “Amen,” as at the wedding of Prince Harry and Meghan Markle on May 19, 2018, where it was performed by the Kingdom Choir. This mashup has been recorded over the years by such soul artists as Sam Cooke (1964), Otis Redding (1966), and Etta James (1982).

Some notable renditions from the twenty-first century are by Odetta with the Boys Choir of Harlem (sung on The Late Show with David Letterman just after 9/11) (2001), Joss Stone and Buick Audra (2009), The Lower Lights (2009), and Bruce Springsteen with the Seeger Sessions Band:

In public arenas the song is sometimes decoupled from its Christian-specific context and used to proclaim more generally one’s inherent dignity or one’s uniqueness or potential or agency or the fire in one’s belly. That’s not incompatible with the intent of the passage in Matthew’s Gospel on which the song is based, but it stops a bit short, as the Gospel writer implies that the light is the light of the Christ who lives in us, and says that by letting him shine through—by letting people see the beauty of his gospel, expressed in deeds—we draw others into a state of gratitude and praise to God.


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 the Fifth Sunday after Epiphany, cycle A, click here.

“Oh Mary, Don’t You Weep”: Death, Resurrection, and the New Exodus

Moses and the Sea by Zak Benjamin
Zak Benjamin (South African, 1951–), Moses and the Sea, 1982. Hand-colored etching.

The exodus of the Israelites from Egypt, where they had been held in bondage for at least two hundred years, through the miraculously parted waters of the Red Sea is the archetypal salvation event in the Hebrew scriptures. Throughout its books, one of the primary epithets for God is “he who brought us up out of Egypt,” or some variation thereof, for this action defined God’s character, assured the Israelites of his strength and will to save.

In addition to its historical sense, Christians have long understood the Old Testament exodus story as a prefigurement of the “new exodus” led by Christ, whereby we are liberated from the bondage of sin. As the New Moses, Jesus confronts evil—institutional evil, but also the evil inside each of us—and leads us out of its clutches. He stretched out his hands on a cross to create for us a clear path to freedom, then he stretched out his hands again three days later in resurrection victory, burying our former oppressors. Liturgical tradition acknowledges the link between the Exodus and the Resurrection by prescribing the reading of Exodus 14 at Easter Vigil.

In the farm fields of the antebellum South, African American slaves resonated strongly with the story of the Israelites. They looked to the Exodus—that literal, historic flight—in hopes that God would one day accomplish the same feat for them, and they even encoded this hope into the songs they sang. “Oh Mary, Don’t You Weep” is one such example. The verses vary by performer, but the chorus is this:

Oh Mary, don’t you weep, don’t you mourn
Oh Mary, don’t you weep, don’t you mourn
Pharaoh’s army got drownded
Oh Mary, don’t you weep

One might be tempted to assume that the Mary referred to here is Moses’s sister, for narrative coherence. (“Miriam” is the Hebrew equivalent of the English “Mary.”) However, the more logical choice, given the weeping detail, is either Mary of Bethany or Mary Magdalene, both of whom the Bible records as weeping in response to death—Mary of Bethany, at the death of her brother, Lazarus (John 11:31–33), and Mary Magdalene, at the death of Jesus (John 20:11–13). In both stories, though, Christ demonstrates power over the grave. He brings Lazarus back to life, and he himself returns to life three days after his Crucifixion.

Melancholy by Odilon Redon
Odilon Redon (French, 1840–1916), Melancholy, 1876. Charcoal on paper. Art Institute of Chicago.

The chorus applies equally well to either Mary, and perhaps the dual reference is intentional. Their stories are similar, the one a precursor to the other. Mary of Bethany, however, seems to be the more popular interpretation, as evidenced by adaptations of the song that add Martha’s name to the chorus, such as the Swan Silvertones’ version (“Oh Mary, don’t you weep / Oh Martha, don’t you mourn”). Either way, the song creates a link between God’s victory over the Egyptians in the Old Testament and his victory over death in the New. The chorus is a consolatory reminder that God is mighty to save.

As with most spirituals, “Oh Mary, Don’t You Weep” operates on three levels:

  1. as Jewish history;
  2. as spiritual metaphor; and
  3. as an expression of present circumstances and/or anticipations.

Continue reading ““Oh Mary, Don’t You Weep”: Death, Resurrection, and the New Exodus”