The first rule of Let It Be a Dance is that it is a mostly-spoken-word folk song.

The second rule of Let It Be a Dance is that it is a mostly-spoken-word folk song.

The third rule of Let It Be a Dance is that it if you’re going to use it, it’s really only best done on guitar with a folk musician who knows what they’re doing.

I know we have a melody transcribed, and a piano accompaniment written. And yes, it’s a good thing we have preserved this song in our living tradition. Ric Marsten captures something amazing in his lyric – combining the joy of humanity with the sage wisdom of Ecclesiastes 3. I love the language. And the chorus is easy to pick up – as good folk choruses are.

But, as we see from the evidence, and as musician (and SUUSI Boyz founder) Alexis Jones has taught us, this is a largely spoken-word folk song. I think our plodding along with piano and a fierce adherence to the song as written in our hymnal has obscured the beauty of this song

Here. This is Ric himself singing it with a group of children:

Now look at these lyrics – they’re meant to be largely spoken:

Let it be a dance we do.
May I have this dance with you?
Through the good times and the bad times, too,
let it be a dance.

Let a dancing song be heard.
Play the music, say the words,
and fill the sky with sailing birds.
Let it be a dance.
Let it be a dance. Let it be a dance.
Learn to follow, learn to lead,
feel the rhythm, fill the need
to reap the harvest, plant the seed.
Let it be a dance.


Everybody turn and spin,
let your body learn to bend,
and, like a willow with the wind,
let it be a dance.
Let it be a dance. Let it be a dance.
A child is born, the old must die;
a time for joy, a time to cry.
Take it as it passes by.
Let it be a dance.


Morning star comes out at night,
without the dark there is no light.
If nothing’s wrong, then nothing’s right.
Let it be a dance.
Let it be a dance. Let it be a dance.
Let the sun shine, let it rain;
share the laughter, bear* the pain,
and round and round we go again.
Let it be a dance.

A quick note about the phrase “bear the pain” – in a couple of places, I have seen folks make reference to the original being “bare the pain” – which is a very different meaning. However, I’ve not got anything more than anecdotal evidence that “bare” was Marsten’s intent. Anyone have information on this?

Anyway… I hope we can use this song judiciously in our congregations, letting our folk musicians (and you know we all have at least one in a congregation… I’m grateful to have Dan Berggren as a member of my home church, but you know yours) pay tribute to Masten and this wonderful, mostly-spoken-word song.

The first time I remember knowing who Peter, Paul, and Mary were, I was about 8 and was watching my brother and his first wife singing the song “Lemon Tree.” Karen had long chestnut brown hair and a rich alto voice, and while I often associated her with another alto brunette named Karen – Karen Carpenter – my sister-in-law had the Mary Travers sound down too, and the song sounded great to my young ears.

Peter, Paul, and Mary – along with so many other folksingers – became part of the rich tapestry of music that filled my childhood, and they are in part why I pick up on harmonies so easily and tend to blend my voice well with whoever I am singing with. But it wasn’t until adulthood, really, that I learned about the political meaning behind their (and so many other folksingers’) lyrics.

I wonder in part if that’s because I liked so much music I didn’t pay attention to it, or if my growing up the child of Rockefeller Republicans kept me from that analysis, or – as I realized in my undergraduate course on Vietnam – the issues were so current and so present there wasn’t language or resources to teach it. I remember sitting in that college class in my early 30s with the professor doing the first-session litany of “of course you know” facts; and while the students 12-15 years younger nodded at basic information, those my age sat with puzzled looks. We recalled to the class that history went up to the Korean War and we talked about current events only after Watergate – thus shining a light into a significant gap in our knowledge.

And it was only in that class that I really came to study and understand the anti-war, civil-rights, social justice meanings of so many songs from the folksingers I had loved throughout childhood.

Which brings me to today’s hymn – written by Peter Yarrow. Sure, it’s a Hanukkah song… sort of. But wow, is it really an anti-war, pro-civil-rights song.

(A quick musical note here – please, for all that is holy, please use guitars when singing this! It just clunks along on piano, and it needs the sense of urgency and freedom that guitars provide. )

Light one candle for the Maccabee children with thanks that their light didn’t die.
Light one candle for the pain they endured when their right to exist was denied.
Light one candle for the terrible sacrifice justice and freedom demand.
But light one candle for the wisdom to know when the peacemaker’s time is at hand.

Don’t let the light go out, it’s lasted for so many years.
Don’t let the light go out, let it shine through our love and our tears.

Light one candle for the strength that we need to never become our own foe.
Light one candle for those who are suff’ring the pain we learned so long ago.
Light one candle for all we believe in, that anger won’t tear us apart.
And light one candle to bring us together with peace as the song in our heart.


What is the mem’ry that’s valued so highly we keep it alive in that flame?
What’s the commitment to those who have died when we cry out they’ve not died in vain?
Have we come this far always believing that justice would somehow prevail?
This is the burden and this is the promise and this is why we will not fail.


What’s amazing to me, reading this the day after FBI Director James Comey was summarily and indelicately fired, just how resonant these lyrics are to Literally Today. “Light one candle for the strength that we need to never become our own foe.” Holy cow. “Have we come this far always believing that justice would somehow prevail? This is the burden and this is the promise and this is why we will not fail” – not “must not”, by the way – “WILL NOT”.

Wow do we need this song today.

Don’t let the light go out.


“Sweet” is the word I would use to describe this hymn.

Sweet lyrics, sweet sentiment, sweet tune. It’s not saccharine sweet, but rooted, old timey sound and wisdom sweet. It’s the kind of tune (another shape note tune, this time from the collection Missouri Harmony) you’d hope to hear played by a guitar, or maybe a violin, or perhaps even a banjo as you walked past a creek from that little cabin tucked in the woods up in the distance.

I don’t have a lot more to say about this sweet little hymn – except maybe a reminder of its message: take time to notice. Take time to meditate. Take time for spiritual practice. Take time.

What is this life if, full of care,
we have no time to stand and stare —
no time to stand beneath the boughs
and stare as long as sheep or cows;

No time to see, when woods we pass,
where squirrels hide their nuts in grass —
no time to see, in broad daylight,
streams full of stars, like stars at night;

No time to turn at Beauty’s glance,
and watch her feet, how they can dance.
A poor life this if, full of care,
we have no time to stand and stare.


What is it about the Southern Harmony tunes? There’s something that just gets me about them – they get inside me and speak deeply to my soul.

In a recent episode of Krista Tippett’s On Being with Béla Fleck and Abigail Washburn, two amazing banjo players and musicians, Washburn talks about hearing Doc Watson for the first time. She remarks that although she was studying law in China at the time, that ancient melody played on banjo and sung by Watson revealed the heart and truth of America. Washburn talks about the African roots of the banjo and this music:

“As people were being boarded onto the slave ships, the people said “throw your heart down here; you’re not going to want to carry it to where you’re going.’ A lot of the slave masters figured out that if they had a banjo player on board, playing the music of home, more of the ‘cargo’ would live to the other side. So the origins of the banjo in America are the bitterest of roots … and it formed an amazing origin to what became a blend of traditions from Africa, Scotland, and Ireland, when those banjo players from Africa and the fiddlers from Scotland and Ireland started playing plantation dances together. That’s what started what we know as that early Appalachian and that early American sound. That sound is based in this bitter root but with this hope ‘that I can live – I can survive.’

It is that truth – the bitter root tinged with hope – that appears in the Southern Harmony tunes, I think. And so whatever words we apply to them both benefit from and should contribute to this deep soul truth.

In this case, the lyric gets close, but for me, doesn’t go deep enough.

When the summer sun is shining over golden land and sea,
and the flowers in the hedgerow welcome butterfly and bee;
then my open heart is glowing, full of warmth for everyone,
and I feel an inner beauty which reflects the summer sun.

When the summer clouds of thought bring the long-awaited rain,
and the thirsty soil is moistened and the grass is green again;
then I long for summer sunshine, but I know that clouds and tears
are a part of life’s refreshment, like the rainbow’s hopes and fears.

In the cool of summer evening, when the dancing insects play,
and in garden, street, and meadow linger echoes of the day;
then my heart is full of yearning; hopes and mem’ries flood the whole
of my being, reaching inwards to the corners of my soul.

It’s close – so close – dancing around the edges of meaning, offering a glimpse of some deeper words to come.

And they don’t here. But maybe that’s a good thing in this case. Maybe this hymn is an opening, an invitation to offer the ‘next ten words, and the ten after that’ because our bitter roots tinged with hope need more words and more ideas and more play.

Meanwhile, set to the tune Holy Manna, these words open the door to something deeper, something maybe unnamable.

Like, maybe, truth.