Oh the things you learn when you challenge your assumptions…
In late January, I co-led an interfaith service focused on resistance, which featured the support of the local AME Zion choir; thus, while music came from several sources, we did lean heavily on the gospel genre, and we chose this song as our sending call. I was surprised to hear the choir sing “stayed on Jesus” – because I had only ever heard “freedom” and I thought “huh” – I guess this is their adaptation of this spiritual to fit their religious needs. I was, in fact, pretty certain that the lyric was changed TO Jesus at some point.
When I opened the hymnal today, I again read “Words and Music: African American spiritual (1750-1875). Assumption confirmed.
Even as I sang this, seeing it as a powerful song speaking to the call of freedom and justice through the ages, I wondered about that Jesus line. So… I trotted over to the internet, and discovered this: “Reverend Osby of Aurora, Illinois created this revamp of an old gospel song ‘I woke up this morning with my mind stayed on Jesus’ while spending time in Hinds County jail during the freedom rides.”
It was then spread and became a signature song of the civil rights movement (you can read more in Pete Seeger’s book Everybody Says Freedom: A History of the Civil Rights Movement in Songs and Pictures).
And so, while it might have roots as a spiritual (I can’t find anything to confirm or deny this at 8:15 on a Sunday morning), it is – as we have it today – a song of the civil rights movement.
Oh, I woke up this morning with my mind stayed on freedom.
Woke up this morning with my mind stayed on freedom.
Woke up this morning with my mind stayed on freedom,
Hallelu, Hallelu, Halleluia.
I was walking and talking with my mind …
I was singing and praying with my mind …
Oh, I woke up this morning with my mind …
And it’s a song we need today, because we are fighting the same fights and we can’t ever forget.
The image is of the Freedom Singers at a 1963 event.