“The sound of all of us…”

Last summer I learned a song that has stuck with me ever since. I was at a religious education summer conference, and Laurie Loosigian taught us “This Is the Sound of One Voice,” written by Ruth Moody of the Wailing Jennies. The melody reminds me of white spirituals, and it easy to harmonize. The lyrics sound equally good around a campfire or in a liberal church. The first verse says:

This is the sound of one voice,
One spirit, one voice,
The sound of one who makes a choice;
This is the sound of one voice.

The second and third verses are about two voices and then three voices singing together, and then the song says:

This is the sound of all of us:
Singing with love and the will to trust,
Leave the rest behind it will turn to dust;
This is the sound of all of us.

There’s an online video of the Wailing Jennies singing the song here. They sing in close harmony, with the usual slightly breathy voices of the commercial folk music circuit. I’d rather sing it full-throated, with more dispersed harmonies, and more emotion — less like commercial folk, and more like a spiritual. Either way, I think it would make a pretty good song to sing in church.

10 thoughts on ““The sound of all of us…”

  1. John A Arkansawyer

    This is often* performed in our church, but not sung by the congregation as a whole. It strikes me as difficult to teach to the entire congregation.

    Not that I’d discourage anyone from trying, I might add.

    *depending on what you think of as often

  2. John A Arkansawyer


    “Amazing Grace” comes to mind right off the top of my head. It isn’t exactly a spiritual, given how spirituals were produced*, but it’s seeped into our consciousness in the way that spirituals do. (Possibly there’s no such thing as a “white spiritual”, exactly.)

    *How folk music is created and develops over time is a hot topic in the academic world, and a lot of old theories about this have been abandoned. I don’t know if this sort of re-evaluation about the origins of spirituals has taken place, or, if it has, if the old theories ho ld up.

  3. Rosemary Donahoe

    I used this song to frame our congregation’s Association Sunday service.
    I love the way one voice is honored, two and three voices add depth and strength and then the last reference to one voice means all of us.
    Our Association at its best don’t you think?

    Our choir performed the piece all the way through, then sang individual verses at key points during the sermon ending with the choir, the minister and me joining in on the last few verses.

    I get what you mean by the breathy-ness of the Wailing Jennies though.
    Our fabulous DRE Kate Sullivan taught us the song full throated and glorious.

  4. VB

    We’ve performed it several times during services, too. But I agree that it’s one that can’t be picked up ad hoc by the congregation. It works great as an introit or anthem, though.

  5. Dan

    Jean @ 2 — White American spirituals are traditional sacred songs generally in the Protestant Christian tradition, often using folk tunes that can be traced back to European sources; music and tunes may be composed, but the music does not coincide with the classical music or conservatory tradition. Much of the surviving white spiritual traditions are in the South. George Pullen Jackson wrote a classic work on the subject, White Spirituals in the Southern Uplands (1938, rpt. Dover 1965). See also sections on white spirituals in the various Lomax collections of American folk songs. Stephen Marini’s book Sacred Song in America (University of Illinois, 2003) describes one tradition of white spiritual singing on pp. 74 ff.

    In many churches, including Unitarian and Universalist churches, indigenous white American spirituals were wiped out during the 19th C. by a movement to pair hymn texts with music from the European conservatory, or classical, music tradition. By the 1960s, Kenneth Patton, a Universalist minister, had rediscovered white spirituals, and had self-published a tune book; Patton was the driving force behind the 1964 Unitarian Universalist hymnal, and a number of white spiritual tunes got included in that hymnal, tunes which are still in use by us today. However, the singing style in Unitarian Universalist churches today owes nothing to the white spiritual tradition, being primarily a debased form of conservatory-trained singing with a very slight admixture of pop and rock singing styles. This is true of most historically white Protestant churches in the North and West, to the best of my knowledge. The white spiritual tradition does live on in a few white churches in Appalachia and the Deep South, however. Some of this music was popularized in the music for the movie “O Brother Where Art Thou.”

    John @ 3 — “Amazing Grace” is a text composed by the Englishman John Newton. The text was widely adopted by white singers in the United States, and it has been paired with a variety of tunes over the years. The best known of those tunes is New Britain, which was originally sung with other words. New Britain and Amazing Grace may have been first put together in William Walker’s 1835 book The Southern Harmony, a hymn book that contains many white spirituals still sung today.

    But to speak of white spirituals also means speaking of a singing style. Marini (2003) points out that the Sacred Harp tradition of white spirituals does not use “the round tone and vibrato typical of white church choirs. They produce a flat piercing vocal tone without vibrato…. They deliver… this with a laser-like chest tone quality that could shatter glass.” The vocal tone reminds me of some of the old-timey and bluegrass singers. Vocal ornamentation varies regionally, and may include “scoops, slides, snaps, even an occasional yodel” — here again, I find this reminiscent of some older bluegrass singers.

    Rosemary @ 4 — I’ve heard Kate Sullivan sing — boy, are you lucky to have her in your congregation — yes, she would be perfect for singing this song with gusto!

  6. John A Arkansawyer


    Thank you for your superior knowledge of Amazing Grace! I was playing that part by ear, as it were. (I didn’t know, before doing a little digging today, that “House of the Rising Sun” was sometimes used with those lyrics. I’m still not sure I know it–I’m having trouble making it fit.)

    I do wonder, though, whether the concept of “white spiritual” is one I want to keep. My voice teacher this semester, who also teaches history of African-American music, is mostly using are spirituals in clas. She doesn’t seem to feel the need to qualify them with the word “black” or “Negro”–to her (or to my interpretation of her), spirituals are songs from the African-American tradition, stemming from the days and conditions of slavery. That was my understanding before taking her class, as well. It just seems odd to me to use the term “white spiritual”.

    (Assuming she and I are both in shape to be there tomorrow–I know I have the crud–possibly I’ll raise the question with her.)

    What do you think? I know that around my mother’s folks, who are back-in-the-hills Ozark people, I’ve never heard the term used. It’s always “gospel”. But then, that’s one isolated location, and I can’t generalize from that.

  7. Dan

    John @ 8 — Yeah, this opens a whole can of worms.

    I’m no expert on this topic, but a couple of things are obvious. George Pullen Jackson made the unfortunate claim that black spirituals are essentially rip-offs from older white spirituals — scholarship since then has made it clear that the black spiritual tradition has a rich core of material inherited from Africa — there may have been some borrowing from white music, but the African material was crucial. Perhaps the white sacred folk music tradition influenced the black sacred folk music tradition in some ways, but the reverse must have been at least equally true. It’s also obvious that black spirituals are far more widespread, far better known, and far more musically significant in the history of American music — black spirituals led to the blues, and thence to jazz, rock, rap, gospel, etc. etc., while white spirituals may have contributed to bluegrass but that’s about it. (Gospel, by the way, is a distinct musical style from the 20th C.)

    Something else should be obvious — any time you start talking about race in America, you’re going to run into controversy, you’re going to run into racially charged conversations, and/or you’re going to run into outright racism.

    Having said all that, there is a body of traditional music that is both sacred and sung by whites. Gospel music isn’t particularly traditional, and it isn’t particularly white. Typical white Protestant hymnody isn’t traditional music; it owes a great deal to Western classical music, and more recently to rock and pop music. Some people may want to reserve the word “spiritual” for black music only, and I think you can make a good argument for that position. But whatever we choose to call it, there is such a thing as traditional white sacred music, and I think one of the things white folks like me have to do is to reclaim our own traditions and stop trying to co-opt all the good black musical traditions.

    And yeah, I like singing that full-throated, vibrato-less style that goes with the white sacred traditional music that I know about. It’s sorta like punk: it’s loud, it’s D-I-Y, and it rocks.

    P.S.: I know nothing about Ozark traditions of sacred folk music, but I’m sure there is scholarship on it somewhere.

  8. John A Arkansawyer

    My teacher and I had a nice talk today before the rest of the students arrived. Her feeling is that the term “white spiritual” is not offensive, but that it is strange (her word), for reasons along the lines I gave above. The one song which she said she thought of as a “white spiritual” is “Michael, Row the Boat Ashore”, which appears to have originated from the Georgia Sea Islands. Apparently the specific provenance of that song is somewhat uncertain. She seemed to know about Jackson’s work and his mistaken idea about cultural influence.

    One point that occurred to me, with which she concurred, was that white church music was a much likelier source of influence on black spirituals, inasmuch as there were households in which slaves and owners worshipped together, but that slaves did not have similar access to white folk traditions in sacred music. We were basically shooting the breeze at this point, so I don’t know how much weight to put on that point. I recall seeing a similar argument in Leroi Jones’ “Blues People”, but it’s been a long time and my copy is in a box here somewhere.

    I’d never thought that carefully about Sacred Harp music, but I have found it hard to listen to on record. Your comparison of it to punk stirred a thought in my own head, associating Sacred Harp music with hardcore and opera. I’ve never cared to listen to either of those on record or over the radio, and I’ve never failed to find them magnificent (in their own ways) when listening and responding in person. Now I’m curious to get myself into the presence of Sacred Harp music and seeing if it, too, has to be experienced live to get to the heart of it.

    I know there’s a volume of Vance Randolph’s collection which contains sacred music (along with miscellany). The next time I’m in Fayetteville (probably this week, actually), I’ll drop by my old folklore teacher’s office and ask him about Ozark sacred folk music.

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