Summary: This song, passed down in the oral tradition, was used during the Civil Rights Era to give people strength and encourage joyful, committed action.
Sometimes, a hint of something bigger leads one down an unexpected rabbit hole. Such is the case with the hints left by the STJ Hymnal Commission about this hymn.
Now to be clear, that group, like the hymnal commissions before them, did excellent work in gathering, researching, and arranging the 75 songs in this hymnal supplement. And it is true that we are always learning more, always finding more resources, and of course always expanding our theological and ethical understanding. Even the book you now hold in your hand may be out of date as new information appears.
The hint that there’s a bigger story with this song led me down a rabbit hole – not to comfortable underground warren but to something Lewis Carroll’s Alice might have encountered, were she a minister looking for more information about a song only hinted at.
According to the hymnal, this is an African American spiritual from the civil rights period. When I go to the UUA Song Information page, I find that hint to something bigger:
This was one of the songs that was used during the Civil Rights Era at virtually every demonstration, mass meeting of activists, and march in the late 1950s and early 1960s. Singing songs helped give the activists strength and a sense of self. For more detailed information, you may explore the book, When the Spirit Says Sing!: The Role of Freedom Songs in the Civil Rights Movement, written by Kerran L. Sanger.
The rabbit hole now contains a copy of Sanger’s book, which is a treasure trove, exploring how songs like this were used to encourage one another, build cohesion in groups, and build collective identity. As Sanger explains, these songs were rarely narrative in nature, which was useful to activists because of ‘the ease with which verses could be changed to adapt a song to a specific civil rights campaign.
Additionally, these songs helped activists define
“freedom by enumerating the ways that activists could get involved in overturning the restrictions imposed on them in the South. The singers sang of ‘walking and talking’ and ‘singing and praying’ as ways of showing themselves and others that they could and would be free. They also encouraged each other, in ‘Do What the Spirit Say Do’ to take opportunities to prove to themselves that they could march, sing, picket, vote, move, love, and die, if the quest for freedom demanded such action. The abstract word ‘freedom’ gained meaning through the listing of activities that would be available for blacks, and the use of the list amplified the meaning of freedom by providing a multifaceted view of what it meant to be free.”
Thus, finding the definitive version becomes impossible; while the version highlighted on WNEW’s Story of Selma is familiar, it may not be anywhere close to the original, because songs shared this way change and morph with each singing; groups lean into different rhythms, or melodic structures, and soon you have a variety of lyrics and melodies. Sanger notes that this “is another song characterized by activists as a song they had learned through the oral tradition and that they recognized as an older, religious song.”
Finding the older, religious song, was more of a challenge; nothing similar comes up at the fairly exhaustive database at NegroSpirituals.com, or in Thomas Higginson’s “Slave Songs and Spirituals.” However, this version from Sweet Honey in the Rock may be closer to that original than others. The tune is markedly different in their version, but the form is the same; a zipper song, which is useful at protests, on marches, at rallies.
And as children’s music, it turns out.
Raffi, known and loved for his music for children, did a version of this song under the title “You Gotta Sing” wherein he takes out the “lord” and adds in verses such as yawn, stretch, play, stomp, and hum rather than the more pronounced activism of verses such as march, moan, picket, vote, love, preach, etc.). The tune is more familiar to our ears than the others.
But none of them have the jazzed up tag that UU musician Mark Freundt reflects in his arrangement in our hymnal. You now the spot – that one tricky spot that’s only tricky until you learn it. I have yet to find a version other than ours that features that tag, which may be Freundt’s mark on the ever-changing nature of a folk song handed down by oral tradition.
This rabbit hole has led not to definitive answers, as the Song Information paragraph hinted at, but rather to more questions for us as we use this song in our services and justice actions: How do we correctly honor its roots in its current form in STJ? Can we sing it differently than written sometimes? Should we? Who has the right to change it? How do we address the context when many know this as a children’s song? Some congregations use the song for Pentecost; does this change our usage of it, or enhance it?
However you hold the complexity of this song, you gotta do what the spirit says do.
Usage Note: permitted for use in online/streaming worship
For More Information:
When the Spirit Says Sing!: The Role of Freedom Songs in the Civil Rights Movement, by Kerran L. Sanger (linked to Amazon)
|Composer:||African American spiritual, civil rights period. Arrangement by Mark Freundt|
|Vocal Range:||moderate (D above middle C to high D)|
|Complexity:||Some tricky parts but easily taught|
|Topics:||Joy, commitment, action, justice, community, embodiment|
|Liturgical Uses:||closing song, recessional|