A Closer Walk: Some Thoughts on Black Hymn Traditions

Black spirituals and other hymns associated with the Black Christian tradition in the US are among the most life-giving, gospel-filled contributions to the corpus of Christian hymnody.

Understanding where these songs come from and how they came to be such a vital component of Black and non-Black liturgical traditions is complicated.

To explore a few popular tunes from the complex story of Black hymnody, we spoke with Paul Westermeyer—professor emeritus of Church Music at Luther Seminary in Saint Paul, Minnesota—who is author of many books on church music and hymnody, among them Hymnal Companion to Evangelical Lutheran Worship, a trove of historical information and theological insight on the 654 hymns in Evangelical Lutheran Worship.

The Elm Ensemble has recorded a few of these remarkable hymns and shares them here, intermixed with the interview.

Few hymns in mainline hymnals are attributed to Black hymnwriters. Who and where are the Black hymnwriters?

The anonymity of Black spirituals is the first thing we should discuss. These songs tend to be known best in their choral or concert versions, as they are arranged and performed broadly in the US and elsewhere. But they are profoundly congregational in their native states and are sung by all manner of Christian congregations. So the complexity of the question leads us inevitably beyond anonymity and Black hymnwriters.

As Black music experts have explained to me, some Black hymn-singers think that some hymns and tunes by white writers are by Black ones, just as some Lutherans think all the hymns in a Lutheran hymnal are by Lutherans. The nature of congregational song is not restricted to one ethnicity or construction of race but is a reality where everything recedes into the communal.

The short answer to your question, for Evangelical Lutheran Worship, is David Hurd. Hurd—a celebrated composer and concert organist and improviser—has three hymns in Evangelical Lutheran Worship and a dozen in Hymnal 1982. The fact that we can count on one hand the number of living Black composers in most mainline hymnals is another matter.

There Is a Balm in Gilead, ELW 614

What is Jeremiah asking in chapter 8 and why is this hymn such a compelling response?

I think Jeremiah is uttering a lament. It’s a rhetorical question in response to some bleak circumstance. I think the hymn is a compelling response because Black folks faced such a bleak landscape but simultaneously knew there was hope in the Holy Spirit and in the love of Jesus who, unlike those who controlled them, was and is their friend.

The verses seem especially preoccupied with the inability to preach the Word effectively. What’s going on here?

I think this is simply a matter of vocation. Not everyone is called to preach like Peter or to pray like Paul. Those who are not—most of the singers—are called to speak the truth in simple declarations that do not require the knowledge some vocations require.

I Want Jesus to Walk with Me, ELW 325

The text here is in the first person singular. How is this communal? Who’s singing this text, and for whom?

I have to be autobiographical to respond to this question. My best friend in high school was Black. He was a fine pianist who went to Juilliard. We sat together in our high school choir where we began a perpetual repartee about music and theology, and we visited each other’s churches and homes.

When I visited his church, I was struck by the language of the hymns and the preaching. In my white church, the first-person singular pronoun in a hymn meant me, one person—and it was sentimental. In my friend’s Black church, the first-person singular pronoun seemed vigorously communal and was not sentimental at all. I began to realize what was confirmed later in visits I made to other Black churches and in my own reading, including this important passage in Readings in African American Church Music and Worship, edited by James Abbington: “the first-person singular personal pronoun ‘I’ was traditionally considered ‘communal’ in Black culture” (62). Everybody is singing this text for everybody before God, in community. The whole body—every member—of a Black church leaves worship to face police brutality and other horrors of racism. In white churches, individuals leave with no concern that they will be attacked because they are white. Singing embodies this reality.

SOJOURNER has a lot going for it as a tune. It ranges from low to high and back again but is also straightforward in many ways. What about this tune, for you, makes it so musically engaging?

This is an interesting example of successful melodic engineering. The tune is triadic minor with the contrasting triadic major second line. It’s almost pentatonic, without the fourth or sixth degrees of the scale and with one alteration of the seventh degree to the leading tone. That tonal arrangement is joined to a rhythmic one that walks along smoothly until the pilgrim journey gets a syncopated bump that is replicated in the repetition of the first line’s cry, now syncopated in the last line. That analysis may help to explain why the tune is engaging, and I’d say the syncopated bump is critical. But you could probably devise a tune with these components that would not be engaging. The tune is not explained solely by analysis.

Come, We That Love the Lord (We’re Marching to Zion), ELW 625

How does an Isaac Watts text paired with a Robert Lowry tune become so closely associated with Black Christian musical traditions?

I learned from Melva Costen that hymns of this sort are regarded by many African Americans as theirs, even as coming from African Americans themselves. I can only assume that the sense of liberation and deliverance they perceive in hymns like this—a characteristic of Christian hymnody generally, in spite of what white Americans have done to it—resonated with them.

What’s this fascination with Zion? It’s mentioned a lot in hymnody, but Mount Zion seems to be just a big barren rock outside of Jerusalem.

The word Zion has a pretty complicated history, but its use in hymns seems to refer to the “city of God”—via its biblical reference to the temple of Jerusalem, the place where Yahweh dwells and the heavenly Jerusalem to come. That’s probably way too simple, but I think something like that is what is in the mind of most singers and writers of hymns.

Just a Closer Walk with Thee, ELW 697

All journeys come to an end, but this text gets in a detailed request for guidance into the kingdom. Do African American spirituals often have explicit references to Christ’s return?

I’ve always thought of this hymn as God’s guidance throughout life, which leads to God’s guidance in death. As to Christ’s return, you’d have to make a pretty complete study of African American spirituals to find out if it’s absent. References might be couched in imagery like “don’t that look like my Jesus” or the chariot rider who’s “getting ready for the judgment day.” In Deep River, I/we “want to cross over into campground”—likely a reference to camp revival meetings but maybe also to the freedom of eternal life in Christ. And the trumpet sound in Steal Away could certainly be the biblical trumpets of Revelation and Paul’s letters declaring the beginning of Christ’s reign.

My suspicion is that Jesus’ presence now in suffering is so strong that it poetically encompasses the second coming without mentioning it as often as it might be mentioned in other traditions. But that’s just a guess, and further work would need to be done.

That opening chromatic lick is just so cool, and so jazzy. Is there any chance this tune doesn’t have its roots in early jazz?

It’s hard to imagine it doesn’t have those roots, but I don’t know of any evidence other than the sonic suggestion.

The fact that we have to speculate about so much of the history and the stories behind these songs takes us back to the anonymity we started with. Details of human life always get lost in the past, but this is particularly so for individuals and communities who are oppressed, enslaved, and otherwise silenced. It is a grace and blessing to all of us that some of those voices—oppressed yet faithful—have survived in song and continue to preach God’s word to us today.