History of Hymns: ‘Amen, Amen’ (‘See the baby’)
By Chris Fenner & C. Michael Hawn
‘Amen, Amen’ (‘See the baby’)
By Broadus Henry Hogan and Laura B. Davis, and Jester Hairston
The Faith We Sing, 2072
Songs of Zion, 147 (Refrain only)
Amen, Amen, Amen, Amen (sung concurrently with stanzas)
See the baby,
wrapped in the manger,
on Christmas morning.
The well-known “Amen, Amen” is a song with African American roots. Though most hymnals designate it as an African American spiritual, its history is more complex. The style and structure favor a mid-twentieth-century gospel swing rather than that of an African American spiritual. “Amen” began appearing in hymnals in the 1970s. Tracking the development of this song requires a complex array of research skills not traditionally used by hymnologists.
The structure and text known today are the work of Jester Joseph Hairston (1901–2000), renowned African American promoter of spirituals, composer, and choral conductor. Hairston published the choral arrangement “Amen” (© 1957) with Schumann Music Corporation, which lists him as the composer. This arrangement became the basis of the song sung at the conclusion of the award-winning film Lilies of the Field (1963), an adaptation of a novel of the same name by William Edmund Barrett (1900–1986), published in 1962. It is through the film that the song gained recognition in the form that appears in hymnals today.
The film’s plot and the role of the song follows:
Actor, activist, and ambassador Sidney Poitier (b. 1927) played the role of Homer Smith, an itinerate handyman. Smith stops at a farm in the Arizona desert to add water to his car when he encounters a group of ascetic nuns from Austria, Germany, and Hungary. Though he realizes that the penniless nuns live off the land and cannot pay him, Smith agrees to work with them to build a chapel for the impoverished Mexican community. During the evenings, he teaches the nuns rudimentary English. After the chapel is built, the film concludes with Smith (Poitier) singing “Amen” as he leaves the nuns, his work completed. The voice of Hairston is dubbed in the film at this point on behalf of the tone-deaf Poitier. Smith drives away as “Amen” appears on the screen and the music of the song plays. This scene is available at this link. Poitier won the Academy Award for Best Actor in his portrayal of Homer Smith in 1964, beating out male luminaries Albert Finney, Richard Harris, Rex Harrison, and Paul Newman.
Hairston made numerous film appearances as an actor, most uncredited, though his roles in several sitcoms were documented. Hairston’s most famous role was that of senior citizen Rolly Forbes who offered a voice of reason on the TV series Amen (1986–1991). The picture that follows is of Forbes (Hairston) and Aunt Leola (Rosetta LeNoire) on their wedding day in an episode of the series.
The film credits for Lilies of the Fields do not acknowledge Hairston as the song’s composer/arranger or the dubbed voice singing the song at the conclusion. Hairston introduced his song numerous times in the workshops he conducted throughout the country. This link features Hairston discussing the performance practice of “Amen” with the Festival Chorus for the 1990 International Choral Festival, Missoula, Montana.
WINGS OVER JORDAN CHOIR
However, the roots of the song may be found in the Wings Over Jordan (WOJ) Choir, a prominent African American gospel ensemble formed in 1937 in Cleveland, Ohio, one of the first full-time professional Black choirs in the United States. This choir recorded the song at least four times (Hayes & Laughton, 2014), the earliest being June 9, 1948, on RCA Victor (20-3242) with soloist Gerald L. Hutton. Their next album Amen (King LP 395-519) featured soloist James Pettit (1953).
The album cover includes the following helpful liner notes:
AMEN is from the works of a contemporary song writer, and although it contains much of the elements of Negro spirituals, it is not a spiritual. It does rather fully assimilate the atmosphere and the emotion of the ordinary Negro church service or worship. The soloist could easily be the preacher in a narration of biblical events. The resounding amens could easily be the emotional response of the members of the audience. The crescendo ending is very typical and expresses the hysteria to which both preacher and congregation ascended during the sermon.
The 1948 recording is of Hairston’s version, though he is not credited. Recordings in 1953, 1958, and 1960 also use Hairston's version but ascribe the song to “Hogan-Davis.” Recent research reveals them to be Rev. Broadus Henry Hogan (1888–1953), pastor at North Side Baptist Church, in Indianapolis, Indiana, and Indianapolis native Laura B. Davis (b. 1909). The arrangement by Hogan and Davis was copyrighted in 1935 by Homer A. Rodeheaver (1880–1955), known for promoting African American spirituals and gospel songs in his many revival collections. The arranger is E. Edwin Young (1895–1980), a Texas-based white musician.
Though the “Amen” refrain of the Hogan-Davis version is similar to the song now used, the song’s five stanzas—beginning with “The Lord is my shepherd”—are not related to the refrain musically and do not form a cohesive biblical narrative. Hogan and Davis collaborated on a second song— “On My Journey Home”—that was also copyrighted and published by Rodeheaver. Their “Amen” version, appearing in The New National Baptist Hymnal (Nashville, 1977), credits Hogan with the words, Hogan and Davis with the melody, and Young with the arrangement. While the “Amen” refrain provides the outline later adapted by Jester Hairston, the stanzas are not sung over the refrain. Furthermore, they do not follow the theme of the life of Christ. For comparison, a stirring recording of the Hogan and Davis composition sung by a junior high male chorus is available here.
A copyright dispute among Rodeheaver, Hogan, and WOJ likely resulted in listing Hogan and Davis on the WOJ Choir recordings during the 1950s even though Hairston’s version appears on the albums. The Catalogue of Copyright Entries, Library of Congress, indicates that “Amen; S.A.T.B.” with words and music by Jester Hairston was copyrighted by the Schumann Music Corporation on 2 May 1957, as a part of the second series of “The Jester Hairston Spirituals.” The Homer Rodeheaver Company renewed its copyright for the Hogan, Davis, and Young version in 1963. A 1974 recording by the WOJ Choir lists the song as public domain, a practice followed by hymnals beginning in 1970 except for crediting various arrangers.
SERMON AND SONG
The relationship between sermon and song has a long tradition in African American worship. Folklore researcher Mary Dobbin Williams discusses “Amen” in its cultural context.
Amen is a call-and-response congregational hymn. The lead vocalist calls out the lyric, and everyone singing responds with the pattern of Amen. Wings Over Jordan performed the choral pattern of Amen in harmony. The lead vocalist has complete freedom in the application of rhythm and melody when calling out the lines, while the chorus supports with the call of Amen. Amen is commonly used after a prayer, meaning “It is so, or certainly.” The cadence and posture of the ‘Amen’ in song is a declaration that “All that I’ve said, all that has been heard, it so and it is truth, and I agree, Amen. (Williams, 2019, p. 41)
This pattern of sermonized song is similar to an antebellum sermon mentioned by John Wesley Work Jr. (c. 1872–1925). The song sermon style may have been a source for the famous spiritual “Go Down, Moses,” a spiritual also used by Harriet Tubman (c. 1822–1913) as she smuggled enslaved Africans to freedom. The Exodus narrative was subject to the creativity of the preacher/soloist with the congregational response, “Let my people go” (Hawn, 2019, n.p.).
DISSEMINATION AND PERFORMANCE VARIATIONS
Following the song’s inclusion in Lilies of the Field, “Amen” gained recognition when it appeared unattributed in an abbreviated version on the album Keep On Pushing (1964) by The Impressions, a Soul and Rhythm and Blues ensemble. Impressions member Curtis Mayfield, a songwriter and civil rights activist, heard the song when he viewed the film. A shortened version of the song became a staple in their concerts.
The performance style and tempo vary considerably. Wings Over Jordan recordings employ a slow gospel tempo with half note = 60. Hairston’s tempo is more upbeat: quarter note = 136. The Impressions return to the slower tempo with a driving, fast-paced accompaniment.
The following stanzas, taken from Hairston’s anthem, are virtually identical to those sung by Sidney Poitier’s character in Lilies of the Field:
- See the baby, / Wrapped in the manger, / On Christmas morning.
- See him in the temple, / Talkin’ with the elders, / Who marveled at his wisdom.
- See him at the Jordan, / Where John was baptizin’, / And savin’ all sinners.
- See him at the seaside, / Talking with the fishermen, /And makin’ them disciples.
- Marchin’ in Jerusalem, / Over palm branches, / In pomp and splendor.
- See him in the garden, / Prayin’ to his Father, / In deepest sorrow.
- Led before Pilate, / Then they crucified him / But he rose on Easter.
- Hallelujah! / He died to save us, / And he lives forever.
Hope Publishing Company included an arrangement (© 1970) by John F. Wilson (1926–2014) in its collections, 50 Sacred Favorites (1972), and Hymns for the Living Church (1974). Wilson’s arrangement lists both text and music as a “Traditional Spiritual.” Wilson reduced the version published in Hairston’s anthem to seven stanzas from eight with minor textual modifications. He deleted mention of Palm Sunday and focused more extensively on Christ’s crucifixion and resurrection, adding a stanza—“See him on the cross, / bearing all my sins / in bitter agony.” Several hymnals follow this general arrangement. Hymnals published by GIA Publications, Inc. incorporate the more extended version with stanzas by Hairston. Presbyterian publications and The Faith We Sing (2001) use a relatively simple arrangement by South Carolina school teacher Nelsie T. Johnson (1912–2009), shortened to six stanzas.
Versions of the "Amen" refrain were sung during the Civil Rights marches and sit-ins in the 1960s usually substituting the word "Freedom" for "Amen."
C. Michael Hawn, “Go Down Moses,” History of Hymns (March 13, 2019), Discipleship Ministries: https://www.umcdiscipleship.org/resources/history-of-hymns-go-down-moses (accessed August 9, 2021).
Cedric J. Hayes and Robert Laughton, The Gospel Discography 1943–2000 (E-book, 2014).
Robert Marovich, “Wings Over Jordan,” Encyclopedia of American Gospel Music, ed. W.K. McNeil (New York: Routledge, 2005), 429–430.
Mary Dobbin Williams, “‘I’ll Be Somewhere Listening for My Name’: Wings Over Jordan Choir, The Spirituals, and the African American Experience during the Second World War (MA Thesis, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, 2019).
“Wings Over Jordan Manager Back,” Weekly Review (February 16, 1946), Birmingham, Alabama, p. 1.
Chris Fenner, hymnologist, archivist, and church musician, holds degrees from Western Michigan University and The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary (Louisville). Currently, he is the Digital Archivist for the James P. Boyce Centennial Library. His extensive research using facsimiles led to the development of his website, Hymnology Archive (www.hymnologyarchive.com). Chris’s knowledge of discography, skills in accessing newspaper accounts and various government databases were essential to the development of this article.
C. Michael Hawn, D.M.A., F.H.S., is University Distinguished Professor Emeritus of Church Music and Adjunct Professor, and Director, Doctor of Pastoral Music Program at Perkins School of Theology, Southern Methodist University.