I’m going to let you down, dear reader, because there is a distinct lack of content today.

I feel like I have a lot more work to do to understand this song’s actual origins, the history of its use by Harriet Tubman as a code song for the Underground Railroad, and its use today. I feel ill-equipped to talk about whether I think this should, or shouldn’t be in our hymnal, and what conditions and warnings I would give around the use of such. And … I don’t have the energy to talk about the Biblical text this song speaks to, even though I spent eight months studying Exodus for a show I co-wrote and directed in seminary.

But right now all of these thoughts and directions to investigate seem too big, too important, and too much in need of thoughtful consideration to rush through it on a Sunday morning when I still have service preparations to make.

The short version of it all is this: the song tune is called Tubman to honor this incredible woman, the story of Israelite freedom was a useful and needed allegory for the enslaved as they sought their own freedom, and I always fear that as predominantly white folk, we misuse songs like this.

And still, it’s a good one to sing, especially on the eve of Martin Luther King Jr. Day – it gets down to your toes and resonates in your chest and speaks to that deep yearning in the belly of our humanity.

When Israel was in Egypt’s land,
let my people go;
oppressed so hard they could not stand,
let my people go.

(Chorus)
Go down, Moses,
way down in Egypt land,
tell old Pharaoh,
to let my people go.

The Lord told Moses what to do,
let my people go;
to lead the tribe of Israel through,
let my people go. (Chorus)

For you the cloud shall clear the way,
let my people go;
a fire by night,
a shade by day,
let my people go. (Chorus)

We need not always weep and moan,
let my people go;
and wear these slav’ry chains forlorn,
let my people go. (Chorus)

And so, dear reader, I owe you on this one.

Oh my goodness. I forgot this was in our hymnal.

So… it’s a familiar song, one that has been recorded by such notable singers as Paul Robeson, Louis Armstrong, Sam Cooke, and Mahalia Jackson. It’s appeared in countless movies. For some reason, it appeals to many across racial lines, perhaps because everyone at some time or another can relate, at least to the chorus.

It is a song of pain, of lament. A song borne of the struggles in the fields, on the plantations. And it is a song of aspiration and promise. You see, this is one of those songs that, if we had the real – not the UU-ified – third verse, we’d understand that this was a song not of first world problems but of the terrors of slavery and the belief that one could escape. Here’s what we have:

(Chorus)
Nobody knows the trouble I’ve seen,
nobody knows my sorrow.
Nobody knows the trouble I’ve seen,
glory, hallelujah!

Sometimes I’m up, sometimes I’m down, oh, yes, Lord!
Sometimes I’m almost to the ground, oh, yes, Lord! (Chorus)

Although you see me going ‘long so, oh, yes, Lord!
I have my troubles here below, oh, yes, Lord! (Chorus)

One day when I was walking ‘long, oh, yes, Lord!
The heavens broke and love came down, oh, yes, Lord! (Chorus)

But the actual third verse is this:

 If you get there before I do, Oh, yes, Lord
Tell all-a my friends I’m coming too, Oh, yes, Lord

This isn’t about heaven – although I suspect many of the field masters assumed so, particularly with that tantalizing “glory halleluiah” at the end of the chorus. This is about going north to freedom.  Now it may not carry as much actual code as some other spirituals – some, like “Follow the Drinking Gourd” and “Wade in the Water” make surprisingly direct references to where to go and what to look for if you escape and want to catch the Underground Railroad. But this is one of the “yes, I’m in” songs.

Which changes things. This isn’t about modern problems and hoping to hear the voice of the Divine. This is about lament and freedom. And in that context, it is heartwrenching and hopeful. But not because it speaks to my problems, but because it speaks to the problems of the enslaved in the 19th century…and to those in the 21st still seeking freedom.

This is a beautiful, complex, heart-wrenching lament, which brings up a thousand beautiful, complex, heart-wrenching memories. In fact, I can’t imagine not crying or at least getting a little choked up, even if a memory doesn’t come, simply because the tune and the origin story – again, a song born out of slavery – is so moving and haunting and bypasses the mind and goes directly to the heart. Even writing about it, after having sung it tearfully, I am getting choked up again.

Oh, there are a thousand memories I could share, and a thousand stories I could tell. I don’t want to bypass the import of the song’s origins – the 19th century image that serves today’s post reflects the harsh realities of the slave trade in America.

But I also want to share a particular memory of a time that honors the song, honors an ancient victim of violence, and honors an amazing colleague.

My master’s thesis was about theatricality in worship, and I created a half-hour service through which I explored aspects of theater that inform good worship. The service itself was on a topic that I found myself nearly obsessing over while in seminary, the huge swath of unnamed women in the Bible. Called “Nameless,” I told the stories of eight out of hundreds of women – women without whom a story could not progress but whom the male scribes could not be bothered to name – women like Lot’s wife, Pharaoh’s daughter, Job’s wife, and others. I set it in a cemetery the evoked Arlington, and we had a eulogy and a celebration (click here to read and see the service).

Once the tone was established by Sampson’s first wife (the one before Delilah), the women told their stories and asked “what’s my name?” The last was Jephthah’s daughter – a young woman whose excitement over seeing her father return from war results in her death, simply because Jephthah swore an oath to God that he would sacrifice the first living thing he saw on his farm if he returned victorious from battle. (Seriously – this a thing that’s in the Bible, in Judges 11:34-40.)

While the other women sat back down, the stunning Natalie Renee Perkins, who played Jephthah’s daughter, brought a rose to the grave marker with the ancient woman’s name on it, kneeled down, and began singing this spiritual….

Sometimes I feel like a motherless child,
sometimes I feel like a motherless child,
sometimes I feel like a motherless child,
a long way from home, a long way from home.

Sometimes I feel like I have no friend,
sometimes I feel like I have no friend,
sometimes I feel like I have no friend,
a long way from home, a long way from home.

Sometimes I feel like I’m almost gone,
sometimes I feel like I’m almost gone,
sometimes I feel like I’m almost gone,
a long way from home, a long way from home.

There was not a dry eye in the room.

Not just because Natalie sang it beautifully – which she did.

Not just because we were at a memorial service – which we were.

But because the power of this song to speak for those who are a long way from home – emotionally distanced, kept prisoner, even those murdered out of hate – the power of this song is that it speaks to something within all of us and to the bigger, scary realities out of which this song comes and to which this song belongs.

This is a beautiful, complex, heart-wrenching lament.

So many choices this morning…

Do I talk about the person for whom this tune is named, Steve Biko, the South African activist who spearheaded the Black Consciousness movement and died from injuries sustained while in police custody?

Do I talk about the handy term zipper song, which indicates a song, often sung a capella, with nearly identical lyrics and one word or phrase changed for each verse?

Do I talk about how this song was the one that led me to another (1002, Comfort Me – which we’ll get to in November), which led me to hear the voice of the Divine calling me to this path?

Or do I talk about how a song like this is incredibly radical, suggesting that what’s in front of us isn’t everything, and there’s always more for us to do, explore, resist, and open ourselves to?  Do I talk about how this song is a song of resistance, from the time of slavery?

There is more love somewhere.
There is more love somewhere.
I’m gonna keep on ‘til I find it.
There is more love somewhere.

There is more hope somewhere…

There is more peace somewhere..

There is more joy somewhere…

Maybe I talk about those things, but what I really want to talk about is the problem of white Unitarian Universalists changing the lyric of this spiritual to “there is more love right here.” It shifts this from a song of lament and aspiration to a song of declaration, and that’s both frustrating and just plain wrong. Peter Boulatta say it best in his blog post “More Love Somewhere: The Unedited Hymn”:

These songs give theological voice to those who endured slavery, making meaning and spurring resistance as they are sung. When (in my case) white people ask for word changes in such a song, my alarm bells start ringing.

Are white Unitarian Universalists not capable of identifying with Black experience? Not willing, perhaps, to imagine the context out of which this song originated?

Glibly rewriting a slavery-era African American expression of hope and determination should give us all pause.

There’s an air of hubris in this wordsmithing, and a lack of insight.

Joining together to sing “there is more love right here” to me smacks of self-satisfaction and self-centredness.

Go read the whole thing – because he’s absolutely right. Now I have sung it in groups with the changed lyrics, and when I have, the entire mood of the room shifts, perhaps more comfortably than I realized. Sure, there’s something to be said for saying “and all that stuff you’re looking for? You might find it here.” But in my experience, that sets up groups, congregations, and individuals for failure – because what if they don’t find it here? And the truth is, even in a loving community, there is ALWAYS more love, peace, hope, and joy to be found, as long as there is hate, oppression, war, and injustice in the world. There are so many other good songs to sing, why change this one?

Let us be careful about what we do with music, especially when it is not our own.

 

A song that evokes memories..

Over my head I hear music in the air.
Over my head I hear music in the air.
Over my head I hear music in the air.
There must be a God somewhere.

Over my head I hear singing in the air…

Over my head I see trouble in the air…

Over my head I feel gladness in the air …

Over my head I see angels in the air …

This hymn. Feeling all the feelings, thinking all the thoughts, and wishing I had a better memory.

From a purely music and lyrics standpoint, this gets right to my heart, that part of my soul that wonders about God, that part of my spirit that feels lonely and afraid. Even when I’m feeling reasonably okay, this one cuts through all the noise to bring me voice for my fears and comfort for my soul.

And I am just a middle aged white woman in the 21st century. I cannot imagine what this song meant to the enslaved Africans who sang it in the fields, or the black Americans in the crosshairs of Jim Crow and the Civil Rights movement. For them – I cannot imagine how meaningful a song like this must be, how much hope it must bring.

A few years ago, I remember the amazing songstress, scholar, and friend Kim Harris telling a story about this song, about how a young girl in the civil rights era South sang it in church while the cops were trying to come in. In my incredibly faulty memory, that girl is Bernice Johnson Reagon, founder of Sweet Honey in the Rock, but the details are gone and I can’t trust this memory of a song. I am hopeful that when I ping Kim on Facebook, she’ll be able to fill in the details.

But I bring it up because of this song’s power to signal, to comfort, to communicate. Even to a middle aged white woman, for whom this song was never meant to be.

That’s the power of music.

And it is a gift.