Talking Proselytizer Blues

Here’s an old talking blues I found in my files, cleaned up a bit, and added chords to. It might be hard to figure out the rhythm in places, so I’ve italicized the main beats. And here’s a link to a PDF of the lyrics with the main beats underlined.

Walking down the street one fine summer day
A young man stopped me ’cause he had something to say:
“If you want to get to heaven when you up and die,
“You better come to my church, going to tell you why:
“You’re an old man… Time to turn to Jesus…
“We’ll help save you… Make you right with God.”

I said to him, “Kid, you might be right,
“But I think that you and I are fighting different fights:
“I’m fighting to save the world and I’m fighting to save the land;
“Your kind of saving I don’t really understand.
“But God and me go way back… Jesus too…
“And who you calling old… Young whippersnapper…”

“You’ll be damned,” he said mournfully,
“If you don’t stop your sinful ways and follow me!”
That’s all he could say. I feel kind of bad,
But I laughed at him, and he walked away mad.
I let him go… Sad kind of fellow…
Never smiled once… Depressed…

Now that poor fellow, when he up and dies,
He’s going to get one hell of a surprise,
Saint Peter’s going to ask him, “Kid, what did you do?
“Did you fight for peace and justice, the environment, too?
“Say what?… Mostly proselytized?
“Gee, that’s too bad… Say hi to Lucifer for me…”

As for me, when I up and die,
Saint Peter’s going to be the one who gets a surprise,
I’ll march right past him, headed straight on down,
Fight for peace and justice there under the ground.
Organize the damned… Unionize the devils…
Roll the bosses over… Turn hell into heaven…

If we want to get to heaven, here’s what we’re going to do:
Going to fight for peace and justice, maybe sing about it too;
Going to stop climate change so we don’t get barbecued;
And if folks need to eat then we’re going to get them food.
That’s the path to heaven… Clean air and water…
Social justice… And plenty of food…

D – G – /
A7 – D – /
D – G – /
A7 – D7 – /
G7 – – – /
A7 – – – //

(c) 2018 Dan Harper (with thanks to Ted Schade and the New Bedford Folk Choir, 2009)

Too much Old Time Religion

29 parody verses of Old Time Religion, plus the traditional last verse (traditional, that is, if you’re a filker). Collected from many different places on the Web (maybe I made a few of them up), edited (both for style and for a vague correspondence to the religion that is parodied), and neatly assembled so that it can be printed (double-sided) on a single sheet of paper. One verse per religion, so you don’t have to sing endless verses based on, e.g., deities from Ancient Greek religions. And guitar chords. I’ll be bringing this to our local song circle, but you’re welcome to print it out and use it for the cat box.

Old Time Religion (parody version), PDF

For Web-based reference, the text of the PDF appears below the fold… Continue reading “Too much Old Time Religion”

Who gets to make a hymnal?

While working on a sabbatical project, I discovered that Louis F. Benson, in his book The English hymn: its development and use in worship (New York: Hodder & Stoughton, George H. Doran Co., 1915), lists nineteen U.S. Unitarian hymnals published in the thirty-four year period from 1830 to 1864. Nor does Benson claim this is an exhaustive list; indeed, he focuses almost exclusively on hymnals published in and near Boston (you can read this list below).

None of these hymnals was published by the American Unitarian Association (AUA). In some cases a large congregation compiled their own hymnal, which other congregations then adopted; more often, an individual editor or group of editors compiled a hymnal as a speculative venture, hoping that congregations would purchase it. In fact, the AUA didn’t publish its first hymnal until 1868.

In the twentieth century, the vast majority of Unitarian (and later Unitarian Universalist) hymnals were published by the AUA, and then from 1937 on by the Unitarians and Universalists together. In the post-World War II era, I’m only aware of two hymnals that were not published under denominational auspices (excluding one-author or one-composer hymn/song collections, such as those by Rick Masten).

So the vast majority of Unitarian Universalist congregations today use a denominationally-produced hymnal. Why is this? Partly I think it’s because copyright law has become much more strict in the past century; anything published after 1922 is probably covered by copyright, and it can be difficult and expensive to track down copyright owners and buy permission to reprint their text or music; it’s going to take a large-ish organization to have enough resources to deal with copyright challenges. But also I believe we have all bought into the notion that the only “real” hymnal is one published by the denomination.

What if one of the large Unitarian Universalist congregations put together a new hymnal? The hymnbook compilers would face significant challenges posed by copyright issues. To balance those challenges, the ease of self-publishing and the rise of print-on-demand would make layout, printing, and distribution extraordinarily easy. Technical and legal issues aside, wouldn’t it be nice if Unitarian Universalist congregations had a choice of hymnals? — at the very least, we could expand the number of our song choices.


And for those who are interested, I’ll append a very incomplete list of Unitarian and then Unitarian Universalist hymnals, so you can get a sense of the great variety of hymnals that were once available. (I apologize for not researching Universalist hymnals, but this has been too much of a distraction from my sabbatical project as it is; I can’t justify procrastinating any longer.) Continue reading “Who gets to make a hymnal?”


The 6th annual Palo Alto All Day Sacred Harp Singing… singers came from all over California, and from Oregon, Louisiana, and Vermont. The temperature in the room went over 90 degrees, so we ended a half an hour early to make sure no one passed out. Here’s what we looked like in full cry, with fans going full blast:

Trebles (L-R, F-B): Rebecca, Inder, Arnold; Greg, Leah, Ruth; ???, Terry
Tenors (L-R, F-B): Steve, Mark, Yuka; Pat, Gerardo, Paul, Erica, Mary
Basses (L-R, F-B): Ed, Bob, Alex; Peter
Altos (L-R, F-B): Erika, Leigh; Janet, Marsha, Lena, Lorraine
(More than a dozen singers are not visible in this photo.)

“Buddha’s Hymn of Victory”

For this American sacred song, I’ve paired a classic eighteenth century psalm tune with an ancient Pali text translated by Charles Lanman, the great American scholar of Sanskrit. This is what Buddhas was supposed to have said when he at last acheived enlightenment, and was no longer bound to the endless cycle of rebirth. As a sort of extra bonus, the third verse is a translation by Paul Carus, a German immigrant to the United States, and a pioneering figure in the study of comparative religion (though today his scholarship seems quite dated).

Buddha’s Hymn of Victory (PDF) 5-1/2 x 8-1/2 in., for use as an order of service insert.

The music is “Windham” by Daniel Read, one of the greatest of eighteenth century hymn tunes. This composition is usually paired with a text by Isaac Watts that begins “Broad is the road that leads to death…,” and tells how mortals can get to heaven. Even though the Christian path to heaven and the Buddhist path to nirvana are very different, the mood of the music seems to match both texts equally well.

“Pray When the Morn Unveileth”

The appealing imagery of natural beauty in the first stanza of this hymn text draws you in right away, and sets you up for the social and ethical implications of the second verse. Penina Moise, who wrote the text, was a Sephardic Jew born in Charleston, North Carolina, in 1797; she lived her entire life in Charleston, dying there in 1880 (Marion Ann Taylor, Heather E. Weir, Let Her Speak for Herself [Baylor University Press, 2006], 194). Her congregation, Beth Elohim in Charleston, published her hymnal in 1842, “the first hymnal written by an American Jew”; and her hymns continued to be sung long after her death, so that the Reform Jewish hymnal of the 1960s contained more hymns by Moise than by any other Jewish author (Colleen McDannell, ed., Religions of the United States in Practice, vol. 1 [Princeton Univ., 2001], 108 ff.). She is considered to be the first American Jewish woman to write poetry of note in the United States (Solomon Breitbard, “Penina Moise, Southern Jeiwsh Poetess,” ed. Samuel Proctor, Louis Schmier, Malcolm H. Stern, Jews of the South
[Mercer University Press, 1984], 32 ff.).

This setting of Moise’s text comes from the Union Hymnal of 1914. The music is by Alois Kaiser (1840-1908), who was born in Hungary and emigrated to the U.S. in 1866. He was an important early U.S. cantor, and a prolific composer.

Pray When the Morn thumbnail

Pray When the Morn Unveileth (PDF, sized for order of service insert, 5-1/2 x 8-1/2 in.)

The tune is typical of late 19th century American hymnody, which may not appeal to all tastes; and the melody has perhaps too wide a range for a congregational hymn (an octave and a fourth, as bad as “The Star Spangled Banner”). But the music is well-crafted, providing a pleasant setting for the text, and I thought it worth including here: even if it is never sung by congregations, it would make a nice choir anthem.

Click here for permissions and more about the 50 American Sacred Songs project.

“Behold with Joy”

One type of American sacred song that seems to have gradually disappeared in the past quarter century is the patriotic song. Some religious groups (I’m looking at you, Unitarian Universalists) have no patriotic songs at all in their current hymnals. This is a shame, especially for religious groups that claim to support democracy and democratic principles.

I recently came across a patriotic song written in 1776 by the Universalist and patriot Elhanan Winchester. It’s not the greatest poetry, but it’s straightforward and honest. I especially like the second verse, which I find particularly poignant in an era when elections are bought and sold by rich people and big companies:

Happy the land whose rulers are
Chose by the people’s voice alone
For such will take a special care
To save a country of their own.

I found these words set to a tune written in 1781 by composer and patriot William Billings. It’s a happy pairing of robust and singable tune, with honest and heartfelt poetry.

“There Is More Love Somwhere”

I don’t want to spoil anything for you, but if you like the hymn “There Is More Love Somewhere,” there’s another version you should know about.

This is not a widely-sung hymn; I can’t find it in in the vast collection of hymnals at the Web site, and the only hymnal I’ve seen it in is the Unitarian Universalist hymnal, Singing the Living Tradition. The version in Singing the Living Tradition closely follows the melody sung by Bernice Johnson Reagon on her 1986 album “River of Life,” and you can hear Reagon’s version on Youtube. In the booklet that goes with the CD, Reagon says that she learned the song from Bessie Jones. (The only other commercial recording I’ve been able to track down is one by Eileen McGann, a Canadian folk singer, on her 1997 ablum titled “Heritage.”)

Reagon might well have learned the song directly from Bessie Jones, but there’s also an Alan Lomax recording of Jones singing “There Is More Love Somewhere.” Now Bernice Johnson Reagon is a hugely talented singer, but I much prefer Bessie Jones’s rendition of the hymn. Reagon was making a commercial recording, and her performance is highly polished and meticulously crafted. Jones sings the tune in Alan Lomax’s living room, and her performance is by no means a commercially polished recording; yet I feel she gets deeper into the feeling and meaning of the song. Musically, Jones’s version is more direct; Reagon adds carefully articulated sixteenth notes (all of which are carefully reproduced in the Singing the Living Tradition version), where for her part, Jones varies and improvises on the melody, shades pitch and plays with the rhythm, and goes whither the Spirit leads her.

Lest there be any question, the lyrics Jones sings make it clear that this song comes from the African American Christian tradition. Her lyrics begin with “There is more love somewhere,” then go on to “more joy,” “happiness,” “Jesus,” “more peace,” and “heaven,” before reprising “more love” and “more joy.” (If you don’t like heavenly love and joy, you may not want to sing this song.) And as you’d expect from a song out of the African American Christian tradition, there is no pretence that we all have plenty of joy and happiness right here and now; joy, happiness, heaven are all theological ideals, the end towards which we direct our lives, with no guarantee that we will achieve that end now or in the immediate future — we can only hope to find them “somewhere.”

I should also note that Singing the Living Tradition names the tune “Biko,” but as much as I admire Stephen Biko I consider this to be a misleading name that doesn’t relate to the actual origins of the tune. Bessie Jones told Alan Lomax the song came from the Georgia Sea Islands, so “Sea Islands” would be a better name.

In any case — listen to the Bessie Jones version of this tune. Now that I have Jone’s version in my ear, any time I sing it I can’t help but remember that the song comes from the Gullah people of Georgia’s Sea Islands, people who managed to keep their direct cultural connections to Africa; that it’s a song of deepest spiritual longings and hope for the future; and that you don’t need to sing it like a commercially produced recording, you can sing it from the heart.

“All you, to whom adversity has dealt a final blow”

As we think about the the necessity of rebuilding a foundering democracy, a democracy currently dominated by rancor and hate, I can’t help thinking about one of my favorite songs for activists.

Back on December 24, 2008, I wrote about how this song literally saved someone’s life; and how it is a song that could serve as a non-theistic anthem. But I recently found a Youtube video of Liam Clancy singing this song — Clancy was best known for his rendition of the anti-war song “And the Band Played Waltzing Matilda” — and perhaps what he says is the best possible introduction to the song:

“I think it was Bertolt Brecht [says Clancy] who said one time, ‘With a man’s dying breath, he should be prepared to make a fresh start.’ That’s what this next song is about, although it’s supposedly about a ship that went down in the sixties, a ship called the ‘Mary Ellen Carter.’ There’s a lovely last verse to it which is the moral of the whole thing. And it’s a verse that I will tell you because, like myself, you may get solace from it on occasions of tragedy… It says:

“‘All you, to whom adversity has dealt a final blow,
With smiling bastards lying to you, everywhere you go,
Turn to, and put out all your strength of arm and heart and brain,
And like the Mary Ellen Carter, rise again.

“‘Rise again, rise again,
Though your heart may be broken and your life about to end,
No matter what you’ve lost, be it a home, a love, a friend,
Like the Mary Ellen Carter, rise again.'”

And in a later post, I’ll write about some of the ways we can make democracy rise again.


Video still of Liam Clancy speaking

Above: Liam Clancy saying, “Rise again”; video still from “The Mary Ellen Carter” as sung by Clancy (click on the photo for Clancy’s rendition of the song).

Or to hear a video that first tells how the song saved Robert Cusik’s life, and then to hear Stan Rogers himself singing the song (Rogers starts singing at 1:35), click here.

“Babylon Is Fallen”

“Babylon Is Fallen” is not your stereotypical Shaker hymn. The text, by Richard McNemar and first published in 1813 in the Shaker hymnal Millennial Praises, is all about the fall of Empire; the words to the refrain, “Babylon is fallen, is fallen!” come from that great anti-Imperial text, the book of Revelation (18:2): “Fallen, fallen is Babylon the great!”

I remember singing this song with a group of shape-note singers at the time of Occupy Oakland’s shutdown of the Port of Oakland, and it seemed eerily appropriate: “All her merchants cry with wonder / ‘What is this that’s come to pass?’ / Murmuring like the distant thunder, / Crying out, “Alas! Alas!” Obviously, the text predates consumer capitalism; yet insofar as consumer capitalism takes on the role of Empire, this text is worth singing in the early twenty-first century.

In any case, here’s the song:

Babylon Is Fallen thumbnail 1

Babylon Is Fallen thumbnail 2

Babylon Is Fallen PDF

This setting of the text comes from The Sacred Harp, a shape note tunebook that has maintained a living tradition in the South since the 1850s. Traditional Southern singers don’t hold back on this song, as you can hear in this Youtube video. So this is not a polite church hymn to be sung in a breathy voice. It was likely written as a camp-meeting song (come to think of it, it would have sounded good at the Port of Oakland shutdown), and it should be sung full-throated and with vigor.

Click here for permissions and more about the 50 American Sacred Songs project.