Music Moment Archives
Past column by our music director that shared the origins or history of favorite hymns.
"Were You There?"
African American Spiritual
For the first post of this new section, I wanted to share the history of a Palm Sunday/Good Friday hymn: "Were You There?" It's one we sing every year.
The author or authors of "Were You There" are anonymous, as the song was handed down to our tradition orally by enslaved African Americans.
It was first published in a collection in 1899 of "Old Plantation Hymns" and in 1940 was included in an Episcopal Church hymnal, making it the first spiritual ever to be included.
As with many spirituals, the language is coded, expressing the agony of slavery which enslaved people were not allowed to express openly.
For example, the verse "Were you there when they nailed him to the tree?" refers to the horrible lynchings of black people during slavery and throughout the ante-bellum South.
The anonymous authors intuitively identified their acute suffering with the torture of Christ on the cross.
The hymn has been recorded by Paul Robeson, Johnny Cash, Harry Belafonte and many others. It was also one of Mahatma Ghandhi's favorite hymns.
The story of the hymn "Amazing Grace" is familiar to many. Apparently the author, John Newton, a slave trafficker was caught in a wild storm on one of his slave ships. Begging God to save him, the ship miraculously did not sink and thereafter, Newton quit the slave trade and became a Christian.
However, as Newton admits, the story was a bit more complicated than that. His father was a shipmaster, and Newton gained nautical skills by going on trips with him. He was pressganged (basically kidnapped) at the age of 18 into naval service where he was flogged brutally in front of his comrades after trying to desert. Embittered by this experience, he joined a slave ship. However, he did not get on with the crew, who dropped him in West Africa where he consorted with slave traders and himself became a slave for a bit.
Returning to England in 1748, his ship was caught in a severe storm and seemed about to sink. This is when Newton began his conversion to the faith, falling to his knees and begging God to save his life. The storm died down after his prayers.
After this experience, Newton began to read the Bible, but still continued in the slave trade for several more years. After suffering a stroke in 1754 he gave up seafaring and the slave trade. He himself admitted that it took him a while to become a true Christian.
In 1764, Newton became an Anglican priest. His song "Amazing Grace" was referenced in Harriet Beecher Stowe's "Uncle Tom's Cabin" and was recorded by Aretha Franklin, Johnny Cash and Elvis. Recently, President Obama burst into the familiar tune during a memorial service at the church shooting in Charleston, S.C.