Home Worship Planning History of Hymns History of Hymns: 'Deep River'

History of Hymns: 'Deep River'

By C. Michael Hawn

“Deep River”
African American Spiritual
Songs of Zion, 115

Deep river,
my home is over Jordan.
Deep river,
I want to cross over into campground.

This spiritual is one of the most beloved. Several biblical passages may undergird this spiritual; Joshua 3:17 is a good example: “And the priests that bare the ark of the covenant of the Lord stood firm on dry ground in the midst of Jordan, and all the Israelites passed over on dry ground, until all the people were passed clean over Jordan” (KJV). The River Jordan is a persistent theme in Genesis and Numbers, both as a geographic location and as a boundary beyond which deliverance was possible. For enslaved Africans, deliverance could be freedom from bondage in both this life and the next.

The reference to “Jordan” is long associated with numerous spirituals. For example, “Role, Jordan, Roll” was the initial entry in the first major collection of spirituals published after the Civil War, Slave Songs of the United States (1867). Spirituals scholar Eileen Guenther provides a list of fourteen spirituals that mention the Jordan River (Guenther, 2016, p. 88). Though it may seem as if we have always known this spiritual, it was not until the second decade of the twentieth century that it came into American consciousness more broadly. By early in the twentieth century, however, publications of this spiritual significantly changed from its earlier form (Shirley, 1997, p. 493).

First Publication

The Fisk Jubilee Singers included this song in their repertoire. The singers were the celebrated group of students that toured northern United States, England, Scotland, Ireland, Holland, Switzerland, and Germany beginning in 1872, singing songs of the day, most notably spirituals. Through their efforts, funds were raised that saved Fisk University from closing and brought spirituals into the mainstream of white culture, “codifying a performance style and canon whose influence is still evident in the 21st century” (Graham, n.p.).The first print version of “Deep River” and, for that matter, the first mention of this spiritual is found in The Story of the [Fisk] Jubilee Singers: With Their Songs by J. B. T. Marsh, beginning in 1877. The revised edition available to this author published in 1881 listed the spiritual as No. 77, pp. 196-197.

Fisk singers jpeg
Fisk Jubilee Singers (1876), frontispiece from J.B.T. Marsh’s 1977 publication

Only the refrain appears in Songs of Zion in a straightforward four-part arrangement by the collection’s co-editor J. Jefferson Cleveland (1937-1986). Marsh’s version not only records an extended refrain that repeats the final phrase three times, “I want to cross over in to campground,” but also provides three stanzas:

Oh, don’t you want to go to that Gospel-feast,
That promis’d land where all is peace?
Lord, I want to cross over in to campground. (repeat three more times)

I’ll go into heaven, and take my seat,
Cast my crown at Jesus’ feet.
Lord . . .

Oh, when I get to heav’n, I walk all about,
There’s nobody there for to turn me out.
Lord . . .

The stanzas suggest an eschatological hope for “peace,” a relationship with Jesus, and the freedom to “walk all about.” Congregational versions found in hymnals usually include only the shortened refrain and the first stanza.

Musically, there are many differences in this early version from the way we know the spiritual now. Rather than a four-part arrangement as in Songs of Zion, also as performed by the Fisk Jubilee Singers, the version, as published by Marsh, is as an unaccompanied melody. This was not unusual at that time. Another difference from other spirituals was the presence of dynamic markings indicating an alternation between forte and pianissimo on the repeated phrase, “Lord, I want to cross over in to campground.” As Shirley notes, “the obsessive repetition of a single short text to varying music within a narrow range, is extremely unusual. . . “ (Shirley, 1997, p. 496). Rather that the slower melancholy arrangements of the earlier twentieth century, the Fisk version is composed in a steady militant style. While the Fisk version ambiguously moves between the major and relative minor keys, later arrangements are decidedly in a major tonality.

Given the popularity of the “Deep River” as cited in musical and literary works later in the twentieth century, it is an enigma that two of the most prominent African American authors of the early twentieth century, both of whom allude to several spirituals in their literary works, do not include it—W.E.B. Du Bois (1868-1963) and James Weldon Johnson (1871-1938) in the book The Souls of Black Folk (1903) and in the poem “O Black and Unknown Bards” (1908), respectively. More recently, however, African American theologian and civil rights activist Howard Thurman (1899-1981) found the imagery of this spiritual particularly powerful:

[“Deep River”] is perhaps the most universal in insight, and certainly the most intellectual of all the spirituals. In a bold stroke it thinks of life in terms of a river. Of course, it must be added that to these early singers – slaves as they were – practically the river may have been for many the last and most formidable barrier to freedom. To slip over the river from one of the border states would mean a chance for freedom in the North – or, to cross the river into Canada would mean freedom in a new country, a foreign land. But let us reflect in a deeper meaning here. To think of life as being like a river is a full and creative analogy (Thurman, 1975, p. 70).

Thurman continues to develop the analogy of a river in some detail (pp. 70-78).


The imagery of the “campground” seems to be particularly significant. In the earliest Fisk version, the singer would repeat “campground” at least fifteen times. Throughout the Old Testament, a camp was a temporary dwelling on a journey. To camp while on a journey opened up the possibility of a going to a better place. For example, in Genesis 12:1-3, God instructs Abram to leave his country and he will be blessed. The final destination is the land of Canaan, the Promised Land, where they pitched a tent (Genesis 13:12). A few nineteenth-century gospel songs refer to camping as a place of celebration, a place of release from regular duties and struggles. Eileen Guenther notes, “The symbolism of crossing ‘over into campground’ has more than one meaning—returning to Africa; escaping over the Ohio River, the Red River, any other river, really, or the Mason-Dixon Line; or going to heaven” (Guenther, 2016, p. 87). There are no extant slave narratives that mention the spiritual “Deep River.” However, the physical river was a formidable barrier to freedom:

The slaves would pray for to get out of bondage. Some of them say the Lord told them to run away. Get to the North. Cross the Red River [the trans-Mississippi region between Louisiana and Texas]. Over there would be folks to guide them to the free state—Kansas. The Lord never tell me to run away. I never tried it, maybe, because they was caught by patrollers and fetched back for a flogging—and I had whipping enough already (John White, cited in Guenther, 2016, p. 87).

In addition to biblical images of the camp, some enslaved Africans may have had existential experiences of camp meetings, a manifestation of the Second Great Awakening (c. 1790—c. 1850). Generally, slave owners were skeptical of permitting enslaved Africans to worship in their own way. Thus, such meetings were held in secret—the “invisible institution” (Costen, 2007, pp. 23-37). However, the Cane Ridge Kentucky camp meeting in 1801 initiated a practice of interracial camp meetings, a phenomenon promoted primarily, but not exclusively, by the Methodists. Contemporary descriptions describe two preaching stations—one for whites and one for blacks. Even in the antebellum South, it appears that there were times of interracial spiritual renewal: “Old Pine Grove [South Carolina] had never seen such a turn out for many years. . . . The people . . . came in crowds. . . . singing as the old time Methodists used to sing. . . . The negroes are out in great number, and sing with voices that make the woods ring” (cited in Epstein, 1977, p. 198). Other accounts mention gatherings of 4,000 to 5,000 with separate preaching stations where black worshipers outnumbered whites. The singing was vibrant: “The hymns of the negroes, which had continued through the night, were still to be heard on all sides. . . . Their musical talents are remarkable. Most of the blacks have beautiful, pure voices, and sing as easily as we whites talk. . . . These religious camp-meetings. . . are the saturnalia of the negro slaves (cited in Epstein, 1977, p. 199).

A contemporary account cited by scholar Ellen Jane Lorenz both provides an excellent summary of the camp meeting experience and reads like Galatians 3:28 interpreted through the cultural lens of the Second Great Awakening:

If now be [anyone] stood in the present light and felt his heart glow with love to the souls of men, he was welcome to sing, pray, or call sinners to repentance. Neither was there any distinction as to age, color, or anything of a temporal nature: old and young, male and female, black and white had equal privilege to minister the light which they received. (Cited by Lorenz, 1980, p. 31; see pp. 143-146 for more accounts).

Methodist Episcopal abolitionist Rev. John Dixon Long describes the reunions that took place in Pictures of Slavery in Church and State (1857):

But by no means is a camp-meeting hailed with more unmixed delight than by the poor slaves. It comes at a season of the year when they most need rest [following the harvest]. It gives them the advantages of an ordinary holiday, without its accompaniments of drunkenness and profanity. Here they get to see their mothers, their brothers, and their sisters from the neighboring plantations; here they can sing and jump to their hearts’ content (Cited in Guenter, 2016, p. 144).

Of course, the paradox of this situation is not lost upon any person who considers the broader context of the institution of slavery. The freedom to worship experienced by the slaves and the intermingling of blacks and whites was regrettably a temporary phenomenon. Given this perplexing reality, is it possible that the camp meeting, an extended time of revival during the first half of the nineteenth century—affording enslaved Africans a respite from their labors and freedom to sing and worship as they chose—were a taste of heaven? Is it possible that the campground of heaven was envisioned as an eternal camp meeting just over the [Jordan] river of freedom? While the biblical images were certainly the dominant ones undergirding the theology and symbolism of the “campground,” some enslaved Africans may have had a foretaste of heaven during the “camp meeting.”

Musical Versions

Wayne D. Shirley provides the most complete analysis of variations in later publications as well as allusions to “Deep River” in other musical and literary works. Suffice it to say that this is one of the most quoted spirituals in the twentieth century. A few notable examples follow. One of the first arrangements was by the British-American composer Samuel Coleridge-Taylor (1875-1912) who included it in Twenty-Four Negro Melodies Transcribed for the Piano (1905). Noted baritone Harry T. Burleigh (1866-1949), who toured with Coleridge-Taylor, arranged it in his Two Spirituals (1913). It was this version that was popularized in recordings and performances by Marian Anderson (1897-1993) who, as a classical singer, made the spirituals a central focus of her repertoire (See https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9pc2QjtE-MQ). The rolling chords of these versions influenced how the spiritual appeared in the influential The Book of American Negro Spirituals, Vol. 1 (1925) by James Weldon Johnson and John Rosamond Johnson (1873-1954). These later versions shortened the refrain and usually included only one or two stanzas resulting in an ABA form. The most famous symphonic allusion was the citation of the refrain by the choir in the oratorio A Child of Our Time (1939-41) by Sir Michael Tippett (1905-1998). Of the many solo and choral performances available, one of the most distinctive is the recording by African American folk singer and civil rights activist Odetta (Odetta Holmes, 1930-2008), a rendition that “ring[s] like a cry of freedom” (Shirley, 1997, p. 524) (See https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3ZVTWA3qKQg).


William F. Allen, Charles P. Ware, and Lucy McKim Garrison, Slave Songs of the United States (New York: A Simpson & Co., 1867).

Melva Wilson Costen, African American Christian Worship, 2nd ed. (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2007).

Dena J. Epstein, Sinful Tunes and Spirituals: Black Folk Music to the Civil War (Urbana: University of Chicago Press, 1977, 2003).

Sandra Jean Graham, “Fisk Jubilee Singers.” The Canterbury Dictionary of Hymnology. Canterbury Press, accessed November 23, 2019, http://www.hymnology.co.uk/f/fisk-jubilee-singers.

Eileen Guenther, In Their Own Words: Slave life and the Power of Spirituals (St. Louis: MorningStar Music Publications, Inc., 2016).

Ellen Jane Lorenz, Glory, Hallelujah! The Story of the Campmeeting Spiritual! (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1980).

Wayne D. Shirley, “The Coming of ‘Deep River’,” American Music 15:4 (Winter, 1997), 493-534.

Howard Thurman, Deep River and the Negro Spirituals Speak of Life and Death (Richmond, Indiana: United Friends Press, 1975).

J.R. Watson and Carlton R. Young, “Deep River.” The Canterbury Dictionary of Hymnology. Canterbury Press, accessed November 23, 2019, http://www.hymnology.co.uk/d/deep-river.

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.

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