Why Do We Sing What We Sing?

Sermon and moment for all ages copyright (c) 2024 Dan Harper. As delivered to First Parish in Cohasset. As usual, the sermon as delivered contained substantial improvisation.


The first reading is from the poem “Darshan Singh and Christian Harmony,” by Coleman Barks, Gourd Seed (Maypop Books, 1983), p. 59.

The second reading was from John Calvin’s essay “Singing Psalms in Church.”

“As to public prayers, there are two kinds: the one consists of words alone; the other includes music. And this is no recent invention. For since the very beginning of the church it has been this way, as we may learn from history books. Nor does St. Paul himself speak only of prayer by word of mouth, but also of singing. And in truth, we know from experience that song has a great power and strength to move and inflame the hearts of men to invoke and praise God with a heart more vehement and ardent. One must always watch lest the song be light and frivolous; rather, it should have weight and majesty, as St. Augustine says. And thus there is a great difference between the music that is made to entertain people at home and at table, and the Psalms which are sung in church….”

The third very short reading was a Vietnamese folk poem titled “The Singer with a Bad Voice,” trans. by John Balaban, Ca Dao Vietnam (Copper Canyon Press, 2003).

Sermon: “Why Do We Sing What We Sing?”

[This sermon was interspersed with five hymns from recent Unitarian Universalist hymnals, as noted below.]

A question that I’ve been asking myself for some years now is this: why do we sing certain songs in our Sunday services, and not other songs? So I propose that we consider five songs that we often sing, then either sing them or listen to them sung, and think about why we do sing them. We can also think about why it might be strange that we sing them at all.

To begin, a quick explanation of why we sing at all in our services. In Western civilizations before the Protestants split from the Roman Catholics, most religious services did not have anyone singing singing except for some kind of rehearsed choir; if you weren’t in the choir, you didn’t sing. But Protestants like John Calvin, as we heard in the second reading, decided that everyone should sing.

The Puritans who started our congregation followed Calvin, and sang only psalms from the Bible. In the 18th century, they began singing hymns, that is, songs of praise to God that were not psalms. In the 19th century, the repertoire expanded further to include spiritual songs and gospel music, in which mention of God was less prominent. By the middle twentieth century, this congregation began singing songs that had no mention of God at all. We have come quite far from John Calvin.

And this brings us to the first song that I’d like us to consider, a song which has no explicit mention of any deity whatsoever. Let’s stay seated, and we’ll sing just the last verse of hymn #1064, “Blue Boat Home.”

[The congregation sang “Blue Boat Home,” #1064 in Singing the Journey. Recording of the songwriter, Peter Mayer, singing this song. Note that Mayer sings this song a bit differently from the version that appears in the hymnal.]

“Blue Boat Home” doesn’t mention God or any other deity whatsoever. Nevertheless, I’d call it a spiritual song. The song gives thanks, and it tries to make sense of the wonder of the universe. Expressing gratitude and wonder should be considered in some sense spiritual. “Blue Boat Home” is often considered an ecology song, which is another part of its spiritual attraction for us — we Unitarian Universalists have found the spiritual in Nature since Ralph Waldo Emerson’s day.

But why have we latched onto “Blue Boat Home,” and not some other ecology song? For instance, why don’t we sing another spiritual ecology-oriented song that’s just as good, “Swimming to the Other Side,” written by Pat Humphries at about the same time? I’m glad we do sing “Blue Boat Home,” but I see no particular reason why we sing it and not the Pat Humphries song. Oftentimes, our song choices seem to be based on random chance.

There’s another one of our favorite songs that I can’t figure out why we sing, and that’s the song “There Is More Love Somewhere.” While “Blue Boat Home” is a composed song that sounds like a folk song, “There Is Move Love Somewhere” is a genuine honest-to-goodness folk song. “There Is More Love Somewhere” probably comes from Bessie Jones, who was recorded singing it for folklorist Alan Lomax in November of 1961. As is true of many American folk songs, it’s hard to say exactly where this song comes from. It probably has roots in Africa (Bessie Jones’s grandfather was born in Africa). Bessie Jones sang a couple of Christian verses that we usually don’t sing: “There is Jesus somewhere,” and “There is heaven somewhere,” so it probably has European Christian roots, too.

I’ve heard that some Unitarian Universalists have changed the words to this song so it says, “There is more love right here.” Folk songs can change over time, but once you start singing “There is more love right here,” I think you’ve just written a new song with an entirely different meaning; a song that ignore the realities of the African American tradition out of which the song originally arose. When we sing “There is more love “somewhere,” it reminds us that we do not live in a utopia; the moral arc of the universe is still trying to bend towards justice. When I sing “There is more love — somewhere,” that reminds me that we are put here on earth to help one another, and to help one another we have to understand that many of us have plenty of problems. This is a song of longing and striving for a better world. With that in mind, let’s sing the song, and see if you agree with me. No need to open your hymnal. We’ll sing two verses, “There is more love somewhere, I’m going to keep on till I find it”; and then “There is more hope somewhere….”

[The congregation sang “There Is More Love Somewhere,” #95 in Singing the Living Tradition. Recording of Bessie Jones singing this songBernice Johnson Reagon’s recording.]

One of the most popular of all hymns and spiritual songs here in the U.S., across a wide range of religious traditions, is the song “Amazing Grace.” This song was not especially popular until after the Second World War, when professional musicians began making recordings of it. We think we know exactly how “Amazing Grace” sounds, but often what we actually know is the 1970 hit recording by Judy Collins, or the 1946 recording by Mahalia Jackson. Those professionally recorded versions don’t sound like older versions of the song. So the choir is going to sing for us an old version of “Amazing Grace” from 1835, the year the words were paired with the tune we now know best.

[The choir sang the original arrangement of “Amazing Grace.” Recording of this arrangement.]

“Amazing Grace” has taken on many different guises since that old 1835 version. Originally, the words were sung to a different tune. Even after the words were paired with the present tune, in 1835, the words continued to be sung to a wide variety of tunes, right up into the 1920s.

By the 1930s, the editors of songbooks and hymnals somehow settled on the present tune. Once professional musicians like Mahalia Jackson made recordings of it, I guess no one could imagine singing the words to any other tune.

During the 1950s and 1960s, “Amazing Grace” became one of the most powerful songs for African Americans involved in the Civil Rights Movement, providing strength and courage and vision. “Amazing Grace” had been written by a former slave-holder who saw the evil of his ways and reformed; in that story, African Americans fighting for Civil Rights saw hope for the future.

Sometimes White people heard a similar message in “Amazing Grace.” In the 1970s, country singer Johnny Cash began singing the song in his prison concerts. In an interview with Bill Moyers, Cash said, “For the three minutes that song is going on, everybody is free. It just frees the spirit and frees the person.”

Since the 1970s, “Amazing Grace” is often played by bagpipers in cemeteries when someone is buried. Then it provides comfort to people who are in grief. (And it keeps evolving — wait till you hear the offertory Mary Beth is going to play, in which the tune to Amazing Grace goes places you won’t expect.)

The funny thing is that prior to being recorded by professional musicians, “Amazing Grace” belonged to White and Black Southerners living at the cultural peripheries. That poem by Coleman Barks we heard in the first reading describes how the song sounded when the country folk sang it: “The whinge and whang of a loudness I know….” Whinge and whang mean the song did not have the prettiness of a Judy Collins recording, nor the professionalism of a Mahalia Jackson recording. It would have sounded loud, and nasal, and unrestrained, and ecstatic, and — well, that old country singing sounded like bad singing to the educated city folks. To the city folks, it sounded like the kind of singing we heard about in the third reading, singing that causes dogs to bark and bulls to bellow.

So why did the educated city folk, after ignoring the song for over a century, suddenly decide “Amazing Grace” was worth singing? Perhaps it’s because we are slowly, over time, becoming more tolerant of the different subcultures in our country. So instead of being dismissive of uneducated whinge and whang, we can open ourselves to the strangenesses of other people’s musics. We are coming to realize, as Peter Schickele used to say, “all musics are created equal.” We are slowly broadening our perspectives.

The next song I’d like to consider with you seems very comforting and familiar, but it’s actually very strange: “’Tis a Gift To Be Simple.” Let’s sing that right now. Don’t bother opening your hymnals, sing from memory.

[The congregation sang “’Tis a gift to be simple” #16 in Singing the Living Tradition. Recording of Sabbathday Lake, Maine, Shakers singing this song.]

“’Tis a gift to be simple” — that sounds like a the familiar call for simple living. But in reality the Shaker tradition from which this song came was deeply strange.

Susan M. Setta, professor of religion at Northeastern, has written that the Shakers “proclaimed the Motherhood and Fatherhood of God, asserted that the second coming of Christ had occurred in the woman Ann Lee, fostered a social and political structure of both male and female leadership, and prohibited both marriage an private ownership of property.” (1) When the song says “’tis a gift to come down where we ought to be,” the Shakers weren’t talking about some sort of personal growth or self-fulfillment in simple living (which is how we might interpret it today). They meant that after giving up all your private property and ending your marriage and fully believing that Ann Lee was the second coming of Christ, you settled into your place in a Shaker community.

And Shaker worship practices were deeply strange from our point of view. Their worship halls were set up for dancing. In 1961, Sister Lilian Phelps of the Canterbury, N.H., Shakers, described what this was like: “It was the belief of the Shakers that every faculty should be used in the worship of God, and so, various forms of physical exercise were introduced, particularly the March. A group of eight or ten singers, occupied the center of the room, around which the members marched in perfect formation. It was with a graceful, rhythmic motion of the hands as the members marched to the slow or quick tempo of the music.” (2) While this sounds interesting and attractive, it is very different from our worship services.

Yet even though Shakerism is basically alien to our own religious outlook, we still like the song “’Tis a Gift To Be Simple.” There is spiritual truth to be found in this song — both in the words and in the music — that transcends the narrow denominational boundaries in which we are supposed to live.

One of the functions of spiritual music should be to help us transcend the narrow religious boundaries that often restrict our understanding of other people. One of the biggest challenges facing our society today is how to deal with multiculturalism. Due to innovations in communications and transportation, our contact with people who are very different from ourselves continues to increase rapidly. Unfortunately, the increase in diversity in the United States has driven the spread of White supremacist movements, people who think their White racial and cultural identity is so fragile that it can’t survive an encounter with other races unless they are in a position of authority. Since we are not a White supremacists, we have a different experience. Our encounters with other races, ethnic groups, and cultures can actually lead us to deeper self-knowledge and a greater appreciation for our own racial and ethnic roots. When we sing songs from other races and other cultures and other religious traditions, we hope to be brought into greater contact with the wisdom of all of humanity. If we allow ourselves to appreciate the otherness of the songs we sing, our souls will be enlarged; we will become wiser and better people.

This brings me to the final song I’d like to consider: “We Shall Overcome.” Let’s sing that song together. We’ll sing two verses: “We shall overcome some day,” and then “All races together.”

[The congregation sang “We Shall Overcome,” #169 in Singing the Living Tradition. A recording of this song from the Civil Rights Movement.]

It’s hard to know exactly where this song came from. It probably comes from an old gospel song. During a strike by Black tobacco workers in North Carolina in 1946, Lucille Simmons started singing “We will overcome.” Then the Civil Rights Movement picked it up, and it became “We shall overcome” in the 1950s and 1960s.

While this song was originally sung for a very specific purpose — for nonviolent actions during the Civil Rights Movement — it taken on a wider meaning. When the song first became popular, we needed to overcome Jim Crow laws. Today, we still need to overcome racism, but in addition to that we all have personal and communal problems that we need to overcome. “We Shall Overcome” can encompass both our personal troubles, and the wider societal troubles that are all around us. We are encouraged when we sing that someday, we shall overcome. No wonder, then, that we sing this song in our Sunday services.

“We Shall Overcome” helps us see why we sing spiritual songs. We sing these songs to give us strength to face our many troubles. We sing these songs to give us courage, to help us get through the day without giving up. And somehow, it works better when we sing them ourselves. Yes, it is pleasant to listen to a recording of Judy Collins singing her sweetly polished version of “Amazing Grace.” But when we sing a spiritual song ourselves — even if we sing with a whinge and a whang — we get more out of it.

When we actually sing one of these songs ourselves, we sing to gain courage and strength. We will find more love somewhere — if we sing it ourselves. We will find amazing grace — when we sing it ourselves. We shall overcome — but we have to sing it ourselves. We don’t have to have perfect voices, or even good voices. We just have to sing with real feeling deep in our hearts.


(1) “When Christ Was a Woman: Theology and Practice in the Shaker Tradition,” in Unspoken Worlds: Women’s Religious Lives, ed. Nancy Auer Falk and Rita M. Gross, Wadsworth, 2001, p. 264.

(2) Sister Lillian Phelps, “Shaker Dances and Marches,” https://shakermuseum.org/learn/shaker-studies/who-are-the-shakers/shaker-dancing-and-marching/ (accessed 2 May 2024)