Take Your Burden to the Lord (Artful Devotion)

Rodin, Auguste_Fallen Caryatid with a Stone
Auguste Rodin (French, 1840–1917), Fallen Caryatid with a Stone, modeled 1881–82, enlarged 1911–17, Musée Rodin cast 1988. Bronze, 52 1/2 × 33 × 39 in. (133.4 × 83.8 × 99.1 cm). North Carolina Museum of Art, Raleigh. Photo: Victoria Emily Jones.

Cast your burden on the LORD,
and he will sustain you;
he will never permit
the righteous to be moved.

—Psalm 55:22

Cast all your anxiety on him, because he cares for you.

—1 Peter 5:7

Whatever form our anxiety takes, it’s a burden that Sunday’s lectionary reading calls us to relinquish at the feet of God. (Note: To the assigned reading from 1 Peter, I’ve added a similar verse from Psalm 55.)

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SONG: “Take Your Burden to the Lord and Leave It There” by Charles A. Tindley, 1916 | Recorded by Washington Phillips on December 2, 1927, and released January 1928; reissued by Dust-to-Digital on Washington Phillips and His Manzarene Dreams, 2017

One of the founding fathers of American gospel music, Charles A. Tindley [previously] wrote “Take Your Burden to the Lord and Leave It There” in 1916. It started making the rounds in black churches, and gospel-blues artists and guitar evangelists began recording it for big-city record labels, who would send representatives around the country to collect and record “race music” to then press into 78s to market to African Americans.

One of the earliest recordings of “Burden” is by Washington Phillips (1880–1954), a singing farmer-preacher from Simsboro, East Texas; it’s one of eighteen sides he recorded for Columbia Records from 1927 to 1929. He sings it to his own “novelty accompaniment,” as Columbia credited it—a custom instrument he built by reconfiguring two fretless zithers, restringing them and giving them a unique tuning pattern. He played it with both hands and called it a Manzarene, according to a recently discovered Teague Chronicle article from 1907. Musicologists have marveled at the flowing, harp-like sounds his invention enabled and have been unable to reproduce it with any kind of exactness.

Washington Phillips
This photo of Phillips from his 1927 recording session in Dallas shows him holding two zithers that appear to be attached.

Phillips’ “Burden” has since been reissued by several labels, but the best-quality reissue is Dust-to-Digital’s from 2016. The sixteen-track CD comes with a small seventy-six-page hardcover containing photographs, news clippings, ads, recording contracts and other documents, lyrics, and biographical and instrumentation information by the world’s premier Phillips researcher, Michael Corcoran. The extensive liner notes open thus:

The mystery of Washington Phillips begins the first time you hear his sweetly-sung Christian blues, bathed in a celestial haze of notes from an instrument that sounds like a child’s music box. His music is a simple prayer, with the blessing in the asking, the singing, the playing. But his ethereal sound is also highly developed to the point of being almost psychedelic. Where did this strange and moving music come from?

Having interviewed former neighbors and living relatives in Freestone County and combed through archives, Corcoran corrects a lot of misinformation about Wash Phillips, some based on his being confused with his cousin of the same name, who died in a mental institution in 1938, and one persistent myth—that his instrument was a dolceola (a keyboard-activated board zither)—stemming from a misidentification in the liner notes of the Dutch label Agram’s 1984 compilation. I’m constantly impressed by what Dust-to-Digital puts out, and I can’t recommend this product enough.

Though Phillips’ is probably the best known, the song has many other covers as well, sometimes released under abbreviated titles like “Take Your Burden [or Burdens] to the Lord” or “Leave It There.” Blind Joe Taggart recorded the song in 1926. The late twenties through forties also saw recordings by Snowball and Sunshine, the Pace Jubilee Singers, Blind Willie Johnson, Blind Roosevelt Graves, the Golden Gate Quartet, and others, each with their own distinctive interpretation.

The Blind Boys of Alabama recorded the song in 1974, and a much different version in 2013. It’s also part of the Gaither repertoire.

Lately I’ve been seeing an uptick of interest from indie-folk artists. Just last month Wilder Adkins released it as a single.

In 2015 the Dutch-based nonprofit The Influences filmed Phil Cook, a phenomenal guitarist, performing a similar rendition (it is one of two songs he chose to represent his musical influences):

Found Wandering also has a great version up on YouTube, with Sarah Comstock on vocals, accompanied by guitar and fiddle:

For a select list of other covers, click here.

Rodin, Auguste_Fallen Caryatid with a Stone (detail)
Photo: Victoria Emily Jones

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 Seventh Sunday of Easter, cycle A, click here.

Jesus Gave Me Water (Artful Devotion)

Pierce, Elijah_Christ and Lady
Elijah Pierce (American, 1892–1984), Christ and Lady, 1968. Wood, paint, and glitter, 21 1/2 × 16 1/2 × 1 1/4 in. High Museum of Art, Atlanta. Photo: Victoria Emily Jones.

A woman, a Samaritan, came to draw water. Jesus said, “Would you give me a drink of water?” (His disciples had gone to the village to buy food for lunch.)

The Samaritan woman, taken aback, asked, “How come you, a Jew, are asking me, a Samaritan woman, for a drink?” (Jews in those days wouldn’t be caught dead talking to Samaritans.)

Jesus answered, “If you knew the generosity of God and who I am, you would be asking me for a drink, and I would give you fresh, living water.”

The woman said, “Sir, you don’t even have a bucket to draw with, and this well is deep. So how are you going to get this ‘living water’? Are you a better man than our ancestor Jacob, who dug this well and drank from it, he and his sons and livestock, and passed it down to us?”

Jesus said, “Everyone who drinks this water will get thirsty again and again. Anyone who drinks the water I give will never thirst—not ever. The water I give will be an artesian spring within, gushing fountains of endless life.”

—John 4:7–14 MSG (read the full story)

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SONG: “Jesus Gave Me Water” by Lucie E. Campbell, 1946 | Performed by Sam Cooke and the Soul Stirrers, 1951

“One of the most regarded composers of African American religious song, Lucie E. Campbell [1885–1963] was a pioneering figure linking traditional hymnody to modern gospel composition and bridging gender and racial divides in the world of gospel music. Alongside such musical peers as Thomas A. Dorsey, Roberta Martin, and fellow Memphian Reverend W. Herbert Brewster, she helped forge the black gospel sound of the first half of the twentieth century and further belongs to a small coterie of composers who have set lasting standards for religious music in the black Baptist church.” (https://memphismusichalloffame.com/inductee/luciecampbell/)

Campbell’s song “Jesus Gave Me Water” was first recorded by Artis Kitchen in 1947. For a partial list of subsequent covers, see secondhandsongs.com. I like Sam Cooke’s version best, from 1951, when he was singing lead for the Soul Stirrers—no one can beat his honey-smooth vocals. You might know him, as I first did, as the singer of hits like “You Send Me,” “Chain Gang,” “Another Saturday Night,” “Twisting the Night Away,” “Cupid,” and “A Change Is Gonna Come.” (I have fond memories of listening to Oldies 100.7 FM in car rides with my dad growing up!) But like many famous soul singers, Cooke, a PK (preacher’s kid), got his start singing at church, at age six. His leadership of the popular black gospel group the Soul Stirrers from 1951 to 1956 propelled his career, and he crossed over into pop with great success.

For a throatier version of “Jesus Gave Me Water,” which is also quite good, see the Stars of Faith’s recording from 1965.

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A self-taught artist born in Baldwyn, Mississippi, Elijah Pierce began wood carving as a young child, using the pocketknife his father gave him. He knew he didn’t want to farm for a living like the rest of his family, so he left home as a teenager and eventually settled in Columbus, Ohio, where he ran a barbershop and led a church congregation. He described his wood carvings as sermons he used to teach people about the Bible. After encountering how Pierce used art to supplement his teaching, Leroy Almon (another celebrated folk artist, unknown at the time) apprenticed himself to Pierce.

The High Museum of Art in Atlanta has a wonderful collection of folk art, including works by Pierce and his student Almon. Pictured below, from my visit last year, are: Leroy Almon, The Baptism of Jesus, 1983; Elijah Pierce, Christ and Lady, 1968; Ulysses Davis, Jesus on the Cross, 1946; and Leroy Almon, Slavery Time, 1990.

High Museum of Art folk art (Almon, Pierce, Davis)

Though no well is visible in Christ and Lady and the title is generic, I see it as a depiction of the Samaritan woman from Sunday’s lectionary reading, and the description on the museum’s label also interprets it that way.


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 Third Sunday of Lent, cycle A, click here.

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.

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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.

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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.

Look to the Unseen (Artful Devotion)

Embroidered photograph by Aline Brant
Photo and embroidery by Brazilian artist Aline Brant, 2017.

So we do not lose heart. Though our outer self is wasting away, our inner self is being renewed day by day. For this light momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison, as we look not to the things that are seen but to the things that are unseen. For the things that are seen are transient, but the things that are unseen are eternal. For we know that if the tent that is our earthly home is destroyed, we have a building from God, a house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens.

—2 Corinthians 4:16–5:1

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SONG: “The Sweet Forever” (When They Ring Those Golden Bells) | Words and music by Daniel (“Dion”) de Marbelle (1887) | Arranged and performed by the Sensational Nightingales, on It’s Gonna Rain Again (1972, re-released 1998)

There’s a land beyond the river
That we call the sweet forever,
And we only reach that shore by faith’s decree;
One by one we’ll gain the portal,
There to dwell with the immortal,
When they ring those golden bells for you and me.

I wonder, can you hear those bells a-ringing?
I wonder, can you hear those angels singing?
Talkin’ ’bout glory, glory, hallelujah, Jubilee!
In that far-off sweet forever,
Just beyond that shining river,
When they ring those golden bells for you and me.

We shall know no sin or sorrow
In that haven of tomorrow,
When our barque shall sail beyond the silver sea;
We shall only know the blessing
Of our Father’s sweet caressing,
When they ring those golden bells for you and me.

When our days shall know their number,
When in death we sweetly slumber,
When the Savior commands the spirit to be free,
Nevermore with anguish laden,
We shall reach that lovely Eden,
When they ring those golden bells for you and me.


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 5, cycle B, click here.