- For performance notes on this song, see page 1088 of Psalms for All Seasons: A Complete Psalter for Worship.
- For more information about this song, refer to the Leader’s Edition of Sing! A New Creation.
- The following article is by Emily Brink from Reformed Worship.
When hard times come, lines of familiar hymns often leap out at us, catch us unaware, and stick in our throats. At times we cannot sing, we cannot pray. It is then that we need the fellowship of believers more than ever. We need the comfort of knowing that others are singing and praying on our behalf, bringing before God the prayers and songs we cannot sing.
Other times we’re amazed at how suffering people are able to sing and find strength in their songs. The African-American spiritual arose out of suffering (see p. 32). Many of the psalms are laments, and the church is gradually once more recovering the psalms, including the laments. Far fewer hymns are laments (see p. 6).
Here are a few songs that may be helpful to your community in times of struggle.
Psalm 116: I Love the Lord
Click to listen [ Recorded live from Symposium 2004, led by James Abbington ]
Psalm 116 speaks of sorrow and sickness, with a desperate call to God for deliverance. The psalm is also one of gratitude, thanking God for hearing and answering that call. This song includes only the first two verses of the psalm, a song of testimony and love for the God “who heard my cry and pitied every groan.” I love the story of the origins of this gospel song. Here’s the story:
The text: The text came first. During the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, many Presbyterians sang the psalms set in poetic form by Isaac Watts; some sang only the psalms in worship. Watts’s psalm versifications are still found in every hymnal (for example, “O God, Our Help in Ages Past” for part of Psalm 90 and “Joy to the World” for Psalm 98). African-American slaves sitting in the balconies loved many of those psalms, often speaking of their beloved “Dr. Watts” who gave voice to their struggles.
The spiritual: These opening verses of Psalm 116 became the basis for a spiritual. Spirituals were passed down aurally, and a very complex version of this tune as lined out by M. Adams and Louis Sykes is included here as found in the African American Heritage Hymnal (see box on p. 24 for part of this song). The music appears almost unsingable, because this is a transcription of one way this song has been sung, with all the variation that can come from an aural tradition. John Work III (1901-1967), chair of the music department at Fisk University in Nashville, Tennessee, home of the famed Fisk Jubilee Singers, wrote about the phenomenon of variation and improvisation in the spirituals:
In the city churches, among literate worshipers where hymns are sung from hymnals, there is almost a uniform reliance upon a single melody. But among the rural folk, where the transmitting of songs is entirely oral, not only does the melody undergo some change with each performance but there are frequent changes in the words also. When a collector transcribes a folk melody from an individual folk singer, he knows that he is writing the melody as that particular singer sang it that time. . . .
He goes on to describe the music of rural churches in the Negro Primitive Baptist Church in the early part of the twentieth century:
The music in the worship service consisted occasionally of spirituals and the wonderful hymns of Dr. Watts never heard outside of worship. These latter hymns began with a verse intoned by a leader and repeated by the congregation in a long, drawn-out melismatic melody, the original of which might or might not have been taken from the New England hymnody. . . . [T]here is no meter and to me the original melody is not distinguishable. Each singer . . . adds to it. . . . When a hundred aroused singers so intone, the resultant sound is indescribable and impossible to transcribe (from “The Negro Spiritual” in Readings in African American Church Music and Worship, pp. 18-19).
The gospel song: In 1990 the famous gospel artist Richard Smallwood wrote new music for this psalm text, which he probably learned in some version of the spiritual. He said, “People need to know Someone can heal their hurts. I take no credit for the work we do. I owe it all to God and I feel blessed that for some reason he has chosen me to make a difference in people’s lives.” Smallwood is one of the best-known gospel artists today; he has won many awards and performs around the world (see www.richardsmallwood.com). “I Love The Lord” was also sung by Whitney Houston in the film The Preacher’s Wife.
Here the ancient psalm text, as set in poetic form by Isaac Watts in the eighteenth century and filtered through a rural spiritual that nurtured the African-American experience, comes to yet another expression in the urban gospel sound born of ragtime, jazz, and blues. What a delightfully complex mixture bringing together different parts of the body of Christ! And every time we sing it we add our own voice to this story, which becomes our own testimony.
One way to sing this gospel song would be to simply sing the notes on page 23 without additional accompaniment; it would sound more like a modern spiritual or a hymn. But the music here is incomplete. To sing in the gospel style requires a more substantial piano accompaniment; one by Dave Maddox is found in the Leader’s Edition of Sing! A New Creation. Another by Nolan Williams Jr. is provided in the African American Heritage Hymnal. Yet a third is provided in a live recording with James Abbington playing at the 2003 Calvin Symposium on Worship and the Arts (see interview on p. 32); click on the link above to hear it.
- Visit hymnary.org for more information on this song and additional resources.