Home Worship Planning History of Hymns History of Hymns: 'God Be with You'

History of Hymns: 'God Be with You'

By C. Michael Hawn

Thomas dorsey
Thomas Dorsey

“God Be with You”
by Thomas A. Dorsey, Artelia W. Hutchins, and Jeremiah Rankin
Songs of Zion, 203 (Complete hymn)
Zion Still Sings, 215 (Abridged refrain)

Abridged Refrain:
God be with you,
God be with you,
God be with you till we meet again.

This hymn of benediction by gospel legend Thomas A. Dorsey (1899-1993), often labeled as “The Father of Gospel Music” in the African American context, is second in its popularity following “Precious Lord, take my hand” (1932) in the composer’s gospel compositions (Kemp, n.p.).

Hymns of Sending Forth

Let us start with the broader context of sung benedictions. The classic Christian worship service is often divided into four larger sections: gathering, word, table, sending forth. Congregational singing at the sending forth provides a liminal experience between corporate worship and the witness of Christians in the world, a threshold between the gathered body of Christ and their dispersion as the “salt of the earth” (Matthew 5:13). In addition to encouraging service in the world, there is often an eschatological tone to these hymns, indicating that regardless of what happens in life, Christians will meet again in heaven. Many hymns are used at this point in worship. For example, the popular “Blest be the tie that binds” (1782) by British Baptist John Fawcett (1740-1817), probably not conceived as a benediction hymn, is often sung as a hymn of sending forth, at least the first and last stanzas. Many hymnals end this hymn with the original fourth stanza:

When we asunder part,
It gives us inward pain;
But we shall still be joined in heart,
And hope to meet again.

On the surface, this would seem to refer to an earthly parting only. However, the final two stanzas, regretfully less sung, reflect an eschatological theme. The original last stanza follows:

From sorrow, toil, and pain,
And sin we shall be free;
And perfect love and friendship reign
Through all eternity.

A second hymn, “God be with you till we meet again” (1880) by American congregational minister Jeremiah Rankin (1828-1904) was written as a hymn for sending forth. The first stanza implies an earthly parting:

God be with you till we meet again;
By his counsels guide, uphold you,
With his sheep securely fold you,
God be with you till we meet again.

The refrain, however, points to a heavenly reunion:

Till we meet, till we meet,
Till we meet at Jesus’ feet;
Till we meet, till we meet,
God be with you till we meet again.

Textual Authorship: Thomas Dorsey, Artelia Hutchins, and Jeremiah Rankin

The refrain of Dorsey’s hymn cited above, copyrighted in 1940, seems to have amended Rankin’s earlier text. Both Rankin’s and Dorsey’s hymns appear in many African American hymnals, implying that both are well known. While Rankin’s hymn appears in many hymnals, Dorsey’s is found mostly in collections designed for use in predominately African American communities. African American scholar Horace Clarence Boyer notes: “‘God be with you’ by Dorsey and Artelia Hutchins replaced the beloved ‘God be with you till we meet again’ by Jeremiah E. Ranks [sic] and [composer] William G. Tomer (1832-96) as a benediction song” (Boyer, 1995, p. 183). Furthermore, Boyer indicates the significance of this hymn in African American worship by observing that many congregations pair “We’ve come this far by faith” by Albert A. Goodson (1933-2003), a Los Angeles gospel musician, as an opening processional hymn with Dorsey’s “God be with you” (1956) as the benediction (Boyer, 1995, p. 206). Tomer’s musical setting usually called GOD BE WITH YOU (1880) appears in African American hymnals rather than a later composition RANDOLPH (1906) by English composer Ralph Vaughan Williams (1872-1958) that does not include the refrain.

The origins and exact authorship of the text are not entirely clear. An inscription on the score indicates that the song was “Dedicated to Rev. T.S. Horton, Holy Trinity Baptist Church, Brooklyn, NY” (Luvenia A George Collection, n.p.). Almost all hymnals ascribe the abridged song – words and music – to Dorsey only. A very few include gospel singer Artelia W. Hutchins as a co-composer. Archives indicate that the only publishing relationship Hutchins had with Dorsey was “God be with you,” although she is mentioned in the manuscript of Dorsey’s “Don’t you need my Saviour too?” (1931), with the notation “As sung by Mrs. Artelia W. Hutchins” (Luvenia A George Collection, n.p.). One archive lists Hutchins as the author of the words (African American Sheet Music, n.p.). While it appears that Hutchins was involved in the song’s composition in some way, it is not clear to what extent. Given Dorsey’s fame and stature and the less rigorous standards for song attribution at the time of the song’s publication, it is likely that Hutchins’ name was omitted from hymnals though it appears on archive versions of the more complete score found in various academic settings.

When the song is abridged in hymnals to only the first part of the refrain, the correct attribution of the text should most likely be Jeremiah E. Rankin, as his version was well known in hundreds of hymnals, including African American collections, before Dorsey’s version was copyrighted in 1940. Rankin’s text appears in some hymnals with the refrain – “Till we meet, till we meet, / till we meet at Jesus’ feet” – and in mainline hymnals without the refrain in most cases. The version with the refrain obviously had more influence on Dorsey’s version, as his extended refrain begins the same way, but then continues with additional text:

. . . Till we meet our spirit’s keep.
Till we meet, till we meet,
Our souls in love do keep.
Till we meet, till we meet,
Keep us humble at thy feet.

This author suggests that Hutchins had at least a hand in composing the text of the longer refrain and stanzas. Though evidently a gospel singer of some renown in the first half of the twentieth century, her name does not appear as a composer for any other songs. Since the abridged refrain is virtually all that appears in hymnals since Songs of Zion (1981), her contribution as a text writer has been deleted, though solo/choral performances may use her text as found in stanza one.

This author was not able to locate any biographical information on Hutchins, with the exception that gospel artist Willie Mae Ford Smith (1906-1994) credits Hutchins’ rendition of “Let it breathe on me, Let the Holy Ghost breathe on me” with moving her to an “anointing of the Spirit” – speaking in tongues – that changed the course of her career (Dargan and Bullock, 1989, p. 251). This was not likely to have been the well-known “Let it breathe on me” copyrighted in 1949 by African American composer Magnolia Lewis-Butts (1880-1949) if the dates cited in a second account of this experience are referring to the same event. In this account, Hutchins is from Detroit, later to become a creative seedbed of composition and performance in the “Golden Age of Gospel Music.” This performance, which took place at the 1926 National Baptist Convention, changed Smith’s focus from a career as a “high soprano” in the classical tradition to an artist in the emerging black gospel style of this era (Ankeny, n.p.). A discrepancy that may indicate that the two accounts are not the same is that it would be highly unlikely that the ritual activity of speaking in tongues, referred to in the first account, at a National Baptist Convention would have been permitted under the rigorous legendary musical leadership of “Miss Lucie” Eddie Campbell (1885-1963). Be that as it may, another indication of Hutchins’ influence and relationship with Dorsey is the Artelia Hutchins Training Institute, founded in 1950 by Hutchins (NCGCC Departments, n.p.), a part of the educational outreach programs of The National Convention of Gospel Choirs and Choruses, founded by Thomas A. Dorsey in 1932 (Grant, 2012, n.p.).

Although the entire hymn with full refrain and three stanzas appears in the groundbreaking United Methodist supplement Songs of Zion (Nashville, 1981), virtually all other hymnals include only a truncated refrain and no stanzas. The printing of the abridged version may have been a practical matter, as the full refrain is extensive. Additional stanzas would lengthen it considerably at the end of worship. Two other factors might have influenced the performance practice of this hymn: first, the congregation could sing the abridged refrain easily by memory and, second, the first stanza only was performed in a more soloistic/choral manner on recordings rather than congregational style.

The abridged refrain with only the text, “God be with you till we meet again” would seem to address only earthly, temporal partings. However, the first stanza changes the emphasis to the eschatological realm:

If we nevermore shall meet you,
If we nevermore shall greet you . . .
Keep on working for the Master,
He’ll be with you here and after. . .

The rarely sung second and third stanzas seem to focus on the struggles of earthly life:

If your way is dark and dreary,
Cast your ev’ry care on Jesus . . .
He’s a comfort when in sorrow,
He’s a joy for you tomorrow. . .

Joy will unfold like a flower,
If you trust Him ev’ry hour . . .
Songs of joy will surround you,
Holy angels sing around you . . .

The St. Paul Church Choir of Los Angeles

The performance practice of hymns in gospel styles is influenced more by recordings and live performances than by printed scores. A recording by the St. Paul [Baptist] Church Choir of Los Angeles with soloist and director “Prof.” J. Earle Hines (1916-1960) put this song on the map and in the voices of African American congregations. The choir’s first album, “On Revival Day!” (1947), was an immense success, and “God be with you” was the hit song on the album. Under Hines’s leadership, the choir’s Sunday evening broadcasts reached over 1,000,000 people in seventeen states (Boyer, 1995, p. 183). The broadcasts and spinoff 78 rpm single recordings by the St. Paul Choir had a major influence on the shape of African American gospel sound in the mid-twentieth century (Boyer, 1995, p. 206; Cummings, 2009, n.p.). The recording by the St. Paul Choir of “God be with you” may be heard at the following link: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mbrn6fnEosM. Note that it incorporates only the first part of the refrain and the first stanza. A recent more upbeat version with gospel singer Jessy Dixon (1938-2011), featured as soloist on the Gaither Homecoming album “Let Freedom Ring” (2002), preserves the same general style and follows the same abridged version of the refrain and first stanza (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=11JPU4OUQlA). Dixon’s rendition (some sites mistakenly ascribe authorship to Dixon) reflects both the influence of the St. Paul 1947 recording and the appreciation of this composition by a broader “crossover” predominately white gospel audience.

The Music of “God be with you”

Concerning the first publication of the hymn, this author has not had access to archived copies in educational institutions. Songs of Zion publishes the hymn in 2/4 meter, which, given the scholarship of this collection, indicates that this was probably the original printed meter. However, African American gospel performance practice of the era transformed this to the compound meter of 12/8, which both slowed the song down and gave it more of a “swinging” feeling. The only other hymnal to maintain the 2/4 musical meter is the Disciples of Christ Chalice Hymnal (1996), which also publishes the extended refrain but no stanzas. All other African American hymnals available to this author print the refrain only in 12/8 meter. Hymnals only publish the four-part choral/congregational version without a separate piano accompaniment. An analysis of the version performed by Gwendolyn Cooper Lightner, the pianist for J. Earle Hines and the St. Paul Church Choir, is available with a partial transcription (Johnson, 2009, 289-290). The influence of Lightner’s rendition was still evident in the 2002 performance by the Gaithers and Jessy Dixon.

Conclusion

This hymn is a powerful example of how the African American community transforms a germ of an idea from the majority white culture and creates something new. The growing gospel song movement during the first half of the twentieth century resulted in an amazing body of new compositions in, for that day, a fresh and enduring style. It also resulted in the transformation of existing materials, a borrowing that can be found even in spirituals from the nineteenth century. This borrowing is not meant to diminish the creativity of African American composers. To the contrary, it is to highlight the ingenuity of African Americans in the musical arena and the ability of black composers to expand into new forms of musical creativity and expression.

While there are several reasons presented above for the abridgement of “God be with you” in performance and printed collections, the theological ambiguity between a sending-forth hymn for temporary earthly partings and a separation (and hopeful reunion) for eternity reflects the existential reality of the African American community in the United States. Given the systemic oppression and injustice suffered by black Americans in the centuries since their abduction and transport to this continent, the reality is that even a temporary parting is fraught with struggles and uncertainties that may lead to a final separation, a separation to be hopefully followed by a heavenly reunion. Given the rise of migrating peoples for reasons of climate change, war, political oppression, and economic security, and their separation from families and places of origin, this hymn is a gift from the African American church to all of us. For indeed, citing the last line of the first stanza, “[God will] be with you here and hereafter.”

Sources:

African American Sheet Music Collection, circa 1880-1960, Emory Libraries and Information Technology, https://findingaids.library.emory.edu/documents/afamsheetmusic1028. Accessed November 5, 2019.

Jason Ankeny, “Willie Mae Ford Smith,” All Music: https://www.allmusic.com/artist/willie-mae-ford-smith-mn0000686873. Accessed November 5, 2019.

Horace Clarence Boyer, How Sweet the Sound: The Golden Age of Gospel (Washington, D.C.: Elliott & Clark Publishing, 1995).

William Thomas Dargan and Kathy White Bullock, “Willie Mae Ford Smith of St. Louis: A Shaping Influence upon Black Gospel Singing Style,” Black Music Research Journal 9:2 (Autumn, 1989), 249-270).

Lyndia Grant, “Precious Lord Take My Hand,” The Religion Corner, The Washington Informer (July 26, 2012—August 1, 2012), http://web.b.ebscohost.com.proxy.libraries.smu.edu/ehost/pdfviewer/pdfviewer?vid=1&sid=5e1720a5-a120-4b5b-b251-e737c40e5129%40pdc-v-sessmgr04. Accessed November 5, 2019,

Kathryn Kemp, “The Father of Gospel Music Wanted to be a Secular Star,” Christian History, https://www.christianitytoday.com/history/2018/may/father-gospel-music-thomas-dorsey.html. Accessed November 5, 2019.

Idella Lulamae Johnson, “Development of African American Gospel Piano Style (1926-1960): A Socio-Musical Analysis of Arizona Dranes and Thomas A. Dorsey,” Unpublished Ph.D. dissertation, University of Pittsburgh, 2009, http://d-scholarship.pitt.edu/9095/1/JohnsonIdellaLDissSubmission082009.pdf. Accessed November 5, 2019.

“Luvenia A. George Collection,” Series 3. Gospel Music, 1905-1998, Archives Online at Indian University, http://webapp1.dlib.indiana.edu/findingaids/view?docId=VAC1952&link.id=VAC1952-00513. Accessed November 5, 2019.

Tony Cummings, “Prof James Earle Hines & The St Paul Church Choir of Los Angeles,” Cross Rhythms (April 24, 2009), http://www.crossrhythms.co.uk/articles/music/Prof_James_Earle_Hines__The_St_Paul_Church_Choir_Of_Los_Angeles_Gospel_Roots_/35703/p1. Accessed November 5, 2019.

NCGCC Departments, National Convention of Gospel Choirs and Choruses, https://ncgccinc.org/departments. Accessed November 5, 2019.

Joshua Taylor, “God Be with You Till We Meet Again,” History of Hymns (July 2019): https://www.umcdiscipleship.org/articles/history-of-hymns-god-be-with-you-till-we-meet-again. Accessed November 5, 2019.

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.

Related