STLT#116, I’m On My Way

I don’t know where to begin with this one – while it is a joyful song of determination to sing, there are so many layers of complexity, and as a middle-aged white woman, I feel uncomfortable making any assumptions or proclamations about the things that make me go “hmm” here. So I’ll pose some questions and let those be my reflection.

According to Jacqui James in Between the Lines, the Hymnal Commission decided to rename the tune “Ethelred” to honor pioneering African American minister Egbert Ethelred Brown. Yet this is a traditional spiritual. So… cool? Not cool because it is still white people making a change to a song of the enslaved? Shortsighted but decent? Or totally excellent? (I know a member of that commission reads this blog, so I hope he’ll jump in with some insight.)

Also curious: many of the spirituals in our hymnal are called “spiritual” but this one is called “folk tune” – and I wonder why it’s parsed that way.

A question for ministers and music directors – how freely do you change/shift zipper songs like this to be more inclusive? We’re coming up on some more soon that sing to brothers and sisters, which reinforces a gender binary we now know to be incomplete. So do you add a verse? Change a verse and leave out another? Sing it as is to honor its origins (not knowing for certain what the original words are anyway)?

And then, if you do make changes, are you colonizing another’s music, or following a time-honored folk tradition? Can a folk musician like Reggie Harris change it because he is black, but not Joe Jencks because he is white? What are the rules? Are there rules?

I guess my questions come up in my attempts to be better as an ally but not treat it all so preciously either. I know that no matter what your place of privilege, you never get allyship 100% right, but I’d like to always be doing a little better, and music is one place where I can tangibly enter the work.

I’m on my way to the freedom land.
I’m on my way to the freedom land.
I’m on my way to the freedom land.
I’m on my way, great God, I’m on my way.

I asked my sister, come and go with me..

I asked my brother, come and go with me….

If they say no, I’ll go anyhow….

I’m on my way, and I won’t turn back…

And… as a song for our times, this certainly is one. We’re taking up the call to resistance, and asking those around us to come with us, to resist oppression and be free. And for people with marginalized identities, it is a matter of life and death. Yet: I hesitate to use this song for a new purpose without interrogating it first.

Yeah, this work is hard. But it’s a good hard.


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