“Being Different Together”

Yesterday evening, seven of us from the UU Church of Palo Alto attended “Being Different Together,” a community forum sponsored by the Palo Alto Human Relations Commission.

Rev. Kaloma Smith, pastor of the University AME Zion Church in Palo Alto, introduced the keynote speaker, Dr. Joseph Brown, a social psychologist who studies implicit bias, who currently works at Stanford University as the Graduate Diversity Recruitment Officer for the School of Humanities and Sciences and Associate Director for the Diversity & First-Gen Office. Dr. Brown’s doctoral research looked at how stereotypes and prejudice impacted minorities and women. Brown studied with Claude Steele, a social scientist who did research in stereotype threat, among other topics.

Brown said his goal was to find a way to talk about “getting into a more just community.” He said one way to do this is by using the concept of “microaggressions.” He acknowledged that the concept of “microaggression” as it has been popularized is controversial. But he approaches this from a social science perspective, where “microaggression” has been carefully defined and studied. Continue reading ““Being Different Together””

Environmentalism: from sacred texts… pt. 2

Revised version, 15 April 2016

Read part one

Documenting a Local Faith Community, pt. 1

Our local faith community, the Unitarian Universalist Church of Palo Alto (UUCPA), is a congregation affiliated with the Unitarian Universalist Association (UUA), the merger of the American Unitarian Association and the Universalist Church of America. Both the Unitarians and the Universalists started out by rejecting standard Christian doctrines and creeds, and by the late nineteenth century they had become “post-Christian” religious groups. (7) Today, most Christians would not consider UUCPA to be a Christian church: we affirm neither the Nicene Creed, nor Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior; the majority of the congregation are atheists; some of our congregants assert multiple religious identities including non-Christian religious identities such as humanism, Buddhism, etc. Yet to non-Christians, we look like Christians: we meet on Sunday mornings; our religious services resemble standard U.S. Protestant Christian worship services; and our official name is the “Unitarian Universalist Church of Palo Alto.” So the most convenient term for us remains “post-Christian.”

Most Sunday mornings, you will see me standing outside the door to the Main Hall on the campus of UUCPA, greeting families and individuals as they come up the covered walkway from the parking lot and the bike racks, or in the other direction from the front garden. On one particular Sunday morning, Reva, age 12, and her father wave at me as they walk up from their electric car. Reva is looking forward to “Pi Day,” March 14; she has memorized pi to over a hundred digits. When I comment that Pi Day is less fun this year than last, because last year was 3/14/15, Reva’s father points out that if you round up pi to four digits after the decimal point, you have 3.1416. Reva’s family is committed to fighting climate change, and they purchased an electric Nissan Leaf soon after the car came on the market. This family is typical of many Silicon Valley families in the congregation: they celebrate Pi Day, the children are well-versed in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) learning, and they all show their commitment to the global environmental crisis by embracing new technological solutions.

Inside the Main Hall, the senior minister, Amy Morgenstern, has started the service. Three sixth grade girls, Zoe, Becky, and Eva, say “Hi!” to me as they race through the door to take up their usual places in the back corner of the Main Hall. All our children and teens spend the first fifteen minutes of every service in the Main Hall before they go off to Sunday school. While some children prefer to sit with their parents and pay attention to the service, these sixth graders sit quietly in a corner and pay attention to each other.

I finish greeting latecomers, slipping into the Main Hall as Beverly, the lay worship associate, reads this week’s centering words. “With our centering words each week,” says Beverly, “we draw on the many sources of our living tradition.” She reads a short excerpt from a contemporary poem; then she rings a bell, inviting everyone “to follow the sound of the bell into silence.” I’m standing next to where Zoe, Becky, and Maria are sitting. They are still interacting through gestures and facial expressions, and though they are not making any noise I would not say that they are spiritually silent; and I’m pretty sure they didn’t heard the centering words Beverly just read.

Everybody stands to sing the first hymn together. Most of the children know this hymn by heart, a contemporary spiritual song called “Come Sing a Song with Me.” One fifth grader stands on her chair, holding on to a parent, leaning her head back, her whole body involved in singing this, her favorite song. At the beginning of the last verse, I open the side door to the Main Hall, and forty or so children run pell-mell out the door and across the patio towards their Sunday school classrooms. Two generations ago, the children going off to Sunday school would have been almost entirely white, reflecting both a deep racial divide in American religious life, and the fact that the city of Palo Alto was over 90% white. Today, the city of Palo Alto is about 65% white while the surrounding county is now white-minority; nearly a third of the population of Palo Alto is foreign-born. (8) On this Sunday, the children going off to Sunday school are about 75% white; the non-white children at UUCPA are mostly of East and South Asian descent, but also of African descent, Latino/a, Middle Eastern, etc.

While the children race each other to see who will be first in their classrooms (not necessarily because they love class; in some classrooms there are a few couches, and the first ones in the classroom will get a seat on a couch), I reflect on the invisible economic differences between them. The median household income in Santa Clara County is close to $95,000, the highest median household income of any county in the U.S.; at the same time only 13.3% of households have an income in the range of $50,000-75,000, showing that “the middle class is being hollowed out.” (9) Many of the families who are affiliated with UUCPA have annual household incomes well over $100,000, but others are struggling to get by, especially given the exceedingly high cost of housing in Silicon Valley. (10) The majority of the regular attendees of UUCPA have incomes that place them in the middle class and upper middle class, but some regular attendees receive federal assistance for rental housing (so-called “Section 8 housing”). (11)

When I arrive in the classroom, Lorraine, my co-teacher for the sixth grade Ecojustice class, is already there. Of the seven children present today, five are white and two are non-white; six are girls and one is a boy. I take attendance while Lorraine asks one of the children to light a candle in a chalice (a flaming chalice is a common symbol for Unitarian Universalism). The children all say our usual opening words together: “We light this chalice in honor of Unitarian Universalism, the church of the open minds, helping hands, and loving hearts,” (12) and we all do the hand motions that go with each phrase. Next we everyone gets to tell about one good thing and one bad thing that happened to them in the past week; Becky is the only one who doesn’t participate in this; she never participates except when there are only one or two children in class.


Today we’re going to work on making nesting boxes for the Violet-green Swallows that fly over the creek that flows along the edge of the church campus. But first the children want to check on their worm composter and their “recycled container garden” which they made from a worn-out automobile tire and discarded wood pallets. On our way to the composter and the garden, we stop at the church kitchen to pick up some vegetable scraps that the worms would like. As the children dump the scraps into the composter, Lorraine reminds them that we should add dry plant waste to the composter. Two of the children drag over a large yard waste bin and add handfuls of dead leaves along with the vegetable scraps. Aiofe reaches into the composter and finds some worms, which she holds in her hand to show the others. Next we check the container garden, made of a discarded tire. (13) The squirrels have dug holes in the dirt and disrupted the seeds we planted, so I promise to make a wire cage to keep out the squirrels.

On to part three



(7) Historian of religion Gary Dorrien writes that “the implicitly post-Christian religious humanism” of Ralph Waldo Emerson and Theodore Parker, two theological giants of mid-nineteenth century Unitarianism, had “reconfigured” the Unitarians by the late nineteenth century into a post-Christian denomination (The Making of American Liberal Theology, 1805-1900 [Louisville, Kentucky: Westminster John Knox Press, 2001], pp. 105-109). The Universalists became post-Christian somewhat later, but were post-Christian by the time of the merger with Unitarians in 1961.

(8) The U.S. Census Bureau provides the following data for the city of Palo Alto on “Race and Hispanic Origin” from the 2010 Census (as of April 1, 2020): White alone, 64.2%; Black of African American alone, 1.9%; American Indian and Alaska Native alone, 0.2%; Asian alone, 27.1%; Native Hawaiian and Other Pacific Islander alone, 0.2%; Two or More Races, 4.2%; Hispanic or Latino, 6.2%; White alone, not Hispanic or Latino, 60.6%. 32.3% of the population in Palo Alto in 2010 was foreign-born. United States Census Bureau, QuickFacts, Palo Alto city, California, accessed March 26, 2016: link.

The immediate neighborhood of the Unitarian Universalist Church of Palo Alto (UUCPA) is slightly more diverse than the city as a whole. The racial and ethnic composition of census tract 510803, where UUCPA is located: 59% White, 1% Black, 5% Hispanic, 32% Asian, 2% Other. Neighboring census tract 5107 is white minority, at 47% white. “Mapping America: Every City, Every Block,” New York Times, accessed March 26, 2016: link.

(9) Data are from a 2014 study prepared by IHS Economics, and reported by George Avalos, “Santa Clara County has highest median household income in nation, but wealth gap widens,” San Jose Mercury News, August 11, 2014, accessed March 19, 2016: link.

(10) The 2010 U.S. Census found the median household income in Palo Alto, 2010-2014 (in 2014 dollars), was $126,771; the per capita income in the same period was $75,257; and the poverty rate was 5.3%. United States Census Bureau, QuickFacts, Palo Alto city, California, accessed March 26, 2016: link.

The poverty rate of 5.3% may include a higher proportion of families with children. For example, at Gunn High School, one of the two high schools in Palo Alto, 158 students, or 8.2% of students, received federally-funded free and reduced price meals in the 2010-2011 school year, the latest year for which I could find information. Palo Alto Unified School District, Henry M. Gunn High School Midterm Progress Report (Date of Midterm Visit March 22, 2012), Accrediting Commission for Schools, Western Association of Schools and Colleges, 8, accessed March 26, 2016: link. To put this into perspective, a household with four persons would qualify for subsidized meals if the household income is $44,863 or less. Palo Alto Unified School District School Nutrition Program Pricing Letter to Household (June, 2015), 2, accessed March 26, 2016: link.

(11) According to Fred Buelow, Treasurer of UUCPA, the congregation appears to have representation in each of the five quintiles of income distribution, with the smallest number in the lowest quintile. Personal communication, March 28, 2016.

(12) Words by Rev. Ginger Luke, a Unitarian Universalist minister of religious education.

(13) Haiti’s Papaye Peasant Movement (MPP) developed tire gardens to promote food security: “The concept of personal home gardens—in the city and in the countryside—carries great significance in a country where food security is hard to find.” Jessica L. Atcheson, “Ending Food Insecurity, One Urban Tire Garden at a time,” Rights Now: The Newsletter of the Unitarian Universalist Service Committee (Summer/Fall, 2013), 6-8.

Down by the bay…

If you spend any time with kids, you likely know the song “Down by the Bay”:

Down by the bay, where the watermelons grow,
Back to my home I dare not go,
For if I do, my mother will say:
“Did you ever see a….”

Then you improvise a last line with the name of an animal, and something absurd that rhymes with the animal: “Did you ever see a fly, wearing a tie?”

We’re going to sing this song at camp this summer, so I wanted lots of verses, subject to the following rules:
1. The verses had to be kid-friendly (i.e., no cheetahs drinking margaritas).
2. Only one verse per animal
3. No repeating rhymes (i.e., once you rhyme frog with dog, you cannot rhyme dog with frog)
4. Try to have as many different verbs as possible

I now have 48 verses, from various sources (Web, oral tradition, writing a few new ones). Your mission, should you choose to accept it, is to add even more verses, subject to the above rules. Note that the verses below are listed in alphabetical order by animal.

1. an ant, eat an elephant?
2. a beagle, flying with the seagulls?
3. a bear, combing his hair?
4. a bee, with a sunburnt knee?
5. a beetle, threading a needle?
6. a bunny, eating milk and honey?
7. a cat, swing a baseball bat?
8. a chicken, do some guitar pickin’?
9. a chimp, flying in a blimp?
10. a cockatoo, playing a kazoo?
11. a cow, with a green eyebrow?
12. a crab, drive a taxicab?
13. a deer, throwing a spear?
14. a dog, chopping a log?
15. a duck, in a pickup truck?
16. an eagle, married to a beagle?
17. a fish, do a hula in a dish?
18. a fly, wearing a tie?
19. a fox, hiding in a box?
20. a frog, hopping on a dog?
21. a giraffe, who really made you laugh?
22. a goat, in a ferry boat?
23. a goose, kissing a moose?
24. a hawk, knitting a sock?
25. a hog, going out to jog?
26. a horse, on a golf course?
27. a kangaroo, tying her shoe?
28. a lizard, dressed for a blizzard?
29. a llama, wearing striped pajamas?
30. a lobster, shooting at a mobster?
31. a mink, at the skating rink?
32. a moose, drinking apple juice?
33. a mouse, build a great big house?
34. a mule, swimming in a pool?
35. an octopus, who liked to swear and cuss?
36. an owl, drying on a towel?
37. a pig, dancing a jig?
38. a platypus, in a shuttle bus?
39. a rat, with a great big hat?
40. a seal, on a Ferris wheel?
41. a sheep, driving a jeep?
42. a slug, give a bug a hug?
43. a snail, with a dinner pail?
44. a snake, baking a cake?
45. a spider, drinking apple cider?
46. a turkey, who liked to eat beef jerky?
47. a whale, with a polka-dotted tail?
48. a yak, doing jumping jacks?

(N.B.: If you post an additional verse on Facebook, I’ll assume you give me permission to repost on my blog.)

Train wreck

By 1956, my mother, then in her early thirties, had spent most of the previous decade as a school teacher in the Wilmington, Delaware, public schools. But after a difficult end to a love affair she left Delaware to take a job in Weston, Massachusetts. I’m not sure where my mother lived, but she saw a lot of her parents, who lived in Peabody.

My mother once showed me my grandfather’s diary entries from January and February, 1956. I don’t remember much from that diary, except that he was a member of the Board of the Salem church, and that he went to Sunday services regularly, often accompanied by his granddaughter Anne. He made the last entry on February 27, the day after his sixty-fifth birthday. The rest of the diary was blank.

On Tuesday morning, February 28, 1956, a snowy winter day, my grandfather set off for the Peabody train station, to take the train in to Boston. My mother said he had just started a new job; she remembered being struck by how excited and nervous he was about it. At the Peabody station, he boarded Boston and Maine train no. 2406. The train consisted of four Buddliners, self-propelled railcars that needed no locomotive. My grandfather took a seat in the front of the first car, and the train headed south through the blowing snow.

The train joined the main line after the Salem station, and headed towards Swampscott. Thick, heavy snow was coming down fast, and blowing so that it covered the lenses of the signals. That meant the engineer would have been unable to see whether the signals shone red or green. Train 2406 was not equipped with a radio, and when the signals were not visible engineers were supposed to stop the train and contact the dispatcher. But the engineer of train 2406 did not stop. He knew there was another train, train no. 214 with a locomotive and six passenger cars, heading south on the same line just ahead of him; if he had stopped to call the dispatcher, he would have learned that train 214 had stalled on the tracks a quarter of a mile from the Swampscott station. But he just kept going.

When train 214 stalled, a member of the crew was sent to walk back along the track to signal any approaching trains. Train 2406 came out of the snow, going between 40 and 50 miles an hour, and the man from train 214 held up a red flare as a signal. But for whatever reason — operator error, excessive speed for the conditions, lack of familiarity with a new brake system — train 2406 did not even slow down.

Train 2406 hit the rear of the stalled train, hitting with such violence that it shoved the train 214 some fifty feet down the tracks. The photographs of the wreck show an appalling scene. One photo in the collection of the Swampscott Fire Department shows that the first Buddliner in train 2406, the car my grandfather was sitting in, went under the rear car of the stalled train. The front of that first Buddliner became a mass of crushed metal; the roof of that first car was torn off, the left and right sides flattened outwards, and the seats torn off the floor.

Thirteen people died, among them my grandfather; all those who died were in the front Buddliner, car number 6150. Many of those who died were reportedly decapitated or cut in half. The engineer was one of those who died, so we’ll never know exactly why he didn’t stop his train.

A year ago, when my sisters and I were cleaning out my father’s condo after he went into an assisted living facility, I came across a box with a label, written in my mother’s neat schoolteacher handwriting, saying that the box contained some of my grandfather’s personal effects from the day he died. In the box lay grandfather’s gold watch, watch chain, penknife, and gloves; presumably my mother had gotten them from her mother, and had kept them together.

Nine months after the train wreck that killed her father, in the fall of 1956, my mother met a nice electrical engineer named Bob Harper, and nine months after that, in June, 1957, the couple were married out of the Salem Unitarian church — married out of the same church that had held her father’s memorial service nine months earlier.

If you ever find yourself in the Swampscott commuter rail station, look for the low stone monument that lists the names of all those who died in the crash. The victims are listed in alphabetical order; my grandfather, Walter D. Allen, is the first name on the list.

Revised July 15, 2018.



A. How the families of victims were notified:

My cousin Nancy says our grandmother learned about her husband’s death when a newspaper reporter came to the house, knocked on the door, and asked for background information on our grandfather.

According to the Salem News, Richard Trask and his family learned about his father’s death from television news reports: “We heard the news he was dead from television reports, and I can still recall the cry-out of my mother and grandmother when it was broadcast.”

B. An excerpt from Walter Allen’s obituary in the Framingham News of February 29, 1956:

Walter D. Allen
Train Wreck Victim
Services Thursday in Salem Church

The funeral of Walter D. Allen, 65, of 44 Andover street, Peabody, the husband of the former Marion Congdon of Framingham, will take place Thursday afternoon at 2 o’clock with services in the First Church (Unitarian) in Salem.

Mr. Allen was one of the 13 person killed in the Swampscott train wreck Tuesday morning.

Survivors are his wife, a son, Richard of Cincinnati, and two daughters, Nancy of Peabody and Mrs. Martha Farwell of Lexington. He was a native of Nantucket, the grandson of a whaling captain. Mr. and Mrs. Allen formerly resided on Warren road [in Framingham]. …

Later he came to Boston where he was with Stone and Webster and the A. L. Hartridge Co. From 1933 to 1935 he was a special assistant to the building commissioner of the City of Newton. He left that post to become chief engineer for the A. C. Lawrence Co. in Peabody. He went on vacation three weeks ago and was scheduled to retire at its conclusion.

C. Contemporary newspaper account of the wreck:

In the California Digital Newspaper Collection, the Madera Daily News Tribune of Wed., Feb. 29, 1956, contains an account of the wreck from United Press wire service:

Engineer Blamed For Train Wreck Which Killed 13

SWAMPSCOTT, Mass. UP — Investigators said today a railroad engineer who died with 12 others in the wreckage of two Boston & Maine commuter trains was responsible for the smashup.

Sixty persons were injured when the Silver Budd Highliner smashed into the rear of a nine car diesel passenger train in a blinding snowstorm.

A B&M investigating board said the Budd Highliner engineer, Ernest Toutellotte, 55, of Winchester. raced his train past two signal lights and a franticallywaving flagman moments before crashing into the halted diesel.

They termed it a “human failure.”

The aluminum-sheathed Highliner’s first car split apart, the twisted metal shrieking under the impact as it upended two rear coaches. The two trains were jammed with about 1,000 passengers.

Bodies were strewn on both sides of the tracks. A few were trapped in the wreckage. Tourtellotte’s mangled body was found alongside the fireman, Raymond F. Jones, 28, of Lynn.

Called Worst Wreck

Officials, who called it the worst wreck in 38 years in New England, said the engineer had violated a railroad operating rule in running past the signal lights. Both were operating, a spokesman said, but were obscured by the blinding snow.

Both trains were on the B&M’s main line which passes through this small North Shore town, 12 miles from Boston. The wreck occurred about a quarter of a mile north of the Swampscott station.

D. A photo of the wreck, courtesy of the Swampscott Fire Department Facebook page:


E. Links to more information on the wreck of Trains 2406 and 214:

Cable access TV show on the wreck, very detailed account, with lots of vintage photos

“Swampscott Fire Captain Remembers Train Wreck,” news story on the 60th anniversary of the wreck

“Town Finds Crash Monument Days Before Anniversary,” article on how the monument to the victims got carried away by snow removal equipment

Photos of the wreck from the Swampscott Fire Department

“Medical Aspects of the Swampscott Train-Wreck Disaster,” article about emergency response to the wreck, in the New England Journal of Medicine

Environmentalism: from sacred texts to the real world

Revised version, 15 April 2016

Introduction and Methodology

Since at least the 1970s and the birth of the modern environmental movement, theologians and scholars of religion have paid a good deal of attention to how religion can support environmentalism and environmental justice. An important part of this scholarly attention has been directed at interpreting sacred texts and narratives to support environmentalism and environmental justice. (1) Both I, and the local faith community I serve, sometimes use this scholarly work to help inform and shape our response to the environmental crisis.

As much as I appreciate the scholarly work that has been done on this topic, I find a gap between this scholarly work and the work we do in our local congregation. Most people in our congregation have little time for reading sacred texts, let alone reading scholarly works. Our lives are filled with family and personal matters—raising children, going to school or working at jobs or coping with unemployment, caring for aging parents or declining spouses, etc. Many of us are also active in social justice work—our congregation is particularly concerned with homelessness and affordable housing, peacemaking, and managing the global environmental crisis, but we also are fighting racism, working to end modern slavery, dealing with the immigration problem, etc. As a minister of religious education, I myself have little time to read scholarly work, given the demands of teaching children’s classes, advising youth groups, managing volunteers, administering programs, fundraising, counseling people in crisis, etc.

Teaching, managing, administering, and counseling; caring, coping, working, and handling family responsibilities—these leave little time for reading or study. From one point of view, these mundane human relationships crowd out the divine. From another point of view, this is where the divine thrives, growing in the midst of mundane relationships. The poet Marge Piercy, in a poem we sometimes read in our worship services, says:

Weave real connections, create real nodes, build real houses.
Live a life you can endure: Make love that is loving.
Keep tangling and interweaving and taking more in,
a thicket and bramble wilderness to the outside but to us
interconnected with rabbit runs and burrows and lairs. (2)

We could try to clear a straight path through the thickets and brambles of ordinary life, to cut through the thickets that lie between sacred text and our lives. I have attempted to do just this in conducting religious education classes for children and teens: to try to develop straight-line connections between sacred texts and young people’s lives. But trying to make direct connections in religious education has never worked as well as “tangling and interweaving and taking more in.” With that in mind, I decided to document the existing “rabbit runs and burrows and lairs” of our congregation’s religious education program, with its interconnections spreading like tangled rhizomes of plants—to document how a real-world congregation resists “an artificial unity” and instead celebrates “the messiness of becoming.” (3)

Those of us who do documentary work don’t really fit into the scholarly world. Documentarians tend to use language that is “too subjective” for scholarly articles; we tend to write in the first person singular, not in the scholarly passive voice. (4) We are writers, and also photographers and filmmakers, attempting “to ascertain what is, what can be noted, recorded, pictured,” and we try to figure out “how to elicit the interest of others, and how to provide a context, so that an incident, for instance, is connected to the conditions that informed and prompted its occurrence.” (5) Documentary work may seem wordy, non-linear, and overly passionate; documentarians have been accused of avoiding firm conclusions. But documentarians prefer to work this way in order to preserve the tangled messiness of what they have witnessed.

In documenting religious education programs in my congregation, I have protected the privacy of those whom I document, except where I asked for permission to quote someone directly. I have changed names and personal details, and sometimes combined identities to provide additional privacy.

On to part two.




(1) One notable example: Mary Evelyn Tucker and John Grim, series ed., Religions of the World and Ecology Series (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1998-2004). Our congregation has the complete ten volume series in our library, though it appears to be little used.

(2) Marge Piercy, “The Seven of Pentacles,” Circles on the Water: Selected Poems (New York: Knopf, 1982), 128.

(3) Michael Mikulak, “The Rhizomatics of Domination: From Darwin to Biotechnology,” Rhizomes: Cultural Studies in Emerging Knowledge 15: Deleuze and Guattarri’s Ecophilosophy (2007): 17, accessed April 1, 2016 http://www.rhizomes.net/issue15/mikulak.html.

(4) Robert Coles, Doing Documentary Work (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997), 28-30.

(5) Ibid., 20.

(6) Footnote 6 was moved to the main body of the text.

“This Little Light of Mine”

Is the famous song “This Little Light of Mine” an African American spiritual? Or was it composed by Harry Dixon Loes and Avis B. Christiansen around 1920?

Attributions to the African American tradition

Many hymnals and songbooks attribute “This Little Light of Mine” to “African American Spiritual,” or more generally to “Traditional.”

An influential source: Lift Every Voice and Sing II: An African American Hymnal, ed. Horace Clarence Boyer (New York: Church Publishing, 1993), has the following attribution: “Words: Traditional. Music: Negro spiritual, adapt. William Farley Smith (b. 1941)”. The melody of this version resembles the melody collected in 1939 by Alan Lomax, as sung by Doris McMurray of Huntsville, Texas.; this recording is available online here.

An equally influential source is Sing for Freedom: The Story of the Civil Rights Movement Through Its Songs by Guy and Candie Carawan (Montgomery, Ala.: NewSouth Books, 1963/2007). The Carawans give a somewhat different melody, and attribute this as “Traditional song” (p. 21). They provide documentary evidence that indicates the song was included in the “Highlander Song Book” (p. 25), a songbook that would date from the 1930s. Incidentally, the Carawans provide a bridge that is not included in the hymnals I’ve consulted.

In addition to the audio recording by folklorist Alan Lomax in 1939 (see above), “Let hit shine” was collected by Ruby Pickens Tartt, and published in “Honey in the Rock”: The Ruby Pickens Tartt Collection of Religious Folk Songs from Sumter County, Alabama (Mercer University Press, 1991, p. 5; words only). Note that like the Lomax version, this version was probably collected in the 1930s. The editors do not provide any guidance as to when Tartt collected this particular song, but they provide the following editorial comment, without documentation: “Widely performed by choirs and gospel groups during the 1930s, a favorite on gospel radio shows, ‘Let hit shine’ is now also in white folk tradition.”

Note that “This Little Light” is NOT found in the following influential nineteenth century collections of African American songs: Slave Songs of the United States ed. William Francis Allen et al.; The Story of the Jubilee Singers; with their Songs (6th ed., 1872); Cabin and Plantation Songs as Sung by the Hampton Students (1876).

Attributions to composer Harry Dixon Loes

The words to “This Little Light” are collected by Steven Gould Axelrod, Camille Roman, and Thomas J. Travisano, in their book The New Anthology of American Poetry: Modernisms, 1900-1950 (Rutgers University Press, 2005), on p. 605. The editors add the following editorial comment: “Harry Dixon Loes (1892-1965) wrote and composed this song with Avis B. Christiansen (b. 1895). The pair also wrote the hymns ‘Blessed Redeemer’ and ‘Love Found a Way’.” This attribution, coming as it does from a well-regarded university press, carries some weight; however, the attribution is not documented.

Typical of the stories told about the song is that told by Ace Collins, in his book Music for Your Heart: Reflections from Your Favorite Songs (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2013), p. 191: “During his studies [at the Moody Bible Institute], Loes was struck by the significance of three different references to light in the New Testament…. Using light as an inspiration and coupling it to a melody that carried the feel of a spiritual, Loes wrote ‘This Little Light of Mine.’ Yet the song, which is today almost universally known, took a while to take off. Although written in 1920, it would be in the days just before World War II that churches began to adopt ‘This Little Light of Mine’ as a part of Sunday school programs. Within a decade, Loes’s song was translated into scores of languages and sung all over the globe.” Collins provides no documentation whatsoever for any of these assertions.

Although the song was supposedly composed c. 1920, I was unable to find a reference to it in the Catalog for Copyright Entries for the years 1920 and 1921; however, Loes might have copyrighted the song later than 1920.

Hymnary.org shows no publications in hymnals prior to about the late 1930s; see graph here. However, Hymnary.org does not include every single U.S. hymnal from the twentieth century.

Wikipedia attributes the song to Loes, but does not document the source for this attribution. The Wikipedia page was created July 26, 2007, and many online sources (and probably many print sources) unquestioningly accept the Wikipedia attribution in spite of the lack of documentation; therefore, be wary of any source published 2007 and later that attributes the song to Loes.

The Web site Hymntime.com does NOT list “This Little Light” as one of Loes’s compositions. Note that Hymntime.com gives Loes’s dates as October 20, 1892 to February 9, 1965; the birth year is different from the birth year given by Wikipedia.

Conclusion and questions

The fact that folklorists collected the song after Dixon’s purported composition date of circa 1920 indicates that the song could have passed quickly into the folk repertoire soon after composition. However, assuming Loes did indeed write the song (or if Loes co-wrote it with Christiansen), where and when was it first published?

If Loes wrote the melody, what was his original version? Similarly, if the melody is an African American spiritual, what is the earliest recorded version of the melody?

Loes was white, so if he wrote the song, how did it become associated with the African American tradition?

In the absence of firm answers to these and other questions about the origins of this tune, the most careful attribution for this song would be “Unknown.”