Music Moment

This occasional column by our music director will share the origins 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.