History of Hymns: 'Guide My Feet'
By Darnell St. Romain
“Guide My Feet”
African American Spiritual;
The Faith We Sing, 2208
Zion Still Sings, 141
Guide my feet
while I run this race.
Guide my feet
while I run this race.
Guide my feet
while I run this race,
for I don't want to run this race in vain! (race in vain)
The author of the letter to the Hebrews compared the Christian life to running a race (Hebrews 12:1–2). In this race, one puts aside everything that might hinder; namely, sin. While running, one looks to Jesus, who endured the cross. Enslaved Africans knew shame and hostility, the lash, and the whip. In the end, they too would identify with Jesus, who had gone where they hoped to be. From a broader perspective, “Guide My Feet” provides assurance for the Christian journey. From the perspective of African American history, “Guide My Feet” could be a song of encouragement to those escaping captivity and running toward freedom.
Welsh Methodist William Williams’ (1717–1791) famous hymn “Guide Me, O Thou Great Jehovah (Redeemer)” was a well-known antebellum precursor on this theme in the African American community. This hymn’s rich imagery of the Israelites liberated from the yoke of slavery and moving toward “Jordan”—the promised land—appealed to earlier generations of enslaved Africans. “Guide My Feet,” probably a song from the Reconstruction Era, expresses that journey for the African American community that may be embraced by all.
Eileen Guenther provides the following narrative from an unknown enslaved African, suggesting that this spiritual is a prayer for guidance:
What is written of trouble on the heart is written in His blood, and nobody can take the glory of His name away from you. He sho’ guides my trembling feet, I tell you, bless His holy name; He sho’ is my heavenly Father, ooh merciful God. (Fisk 1945, p. 166; cited in Guenther 2016, p. 99).
The stanzas allude to a community of faith surrounding the singer. Stanzas two and three command: “Hold my hand” and “Stand by me” The race is not a solo marathon, but a community that shares a common experience—supporting their brothers and sisters so as not “to run this race in vain!” (Philippians 2:16) Stanza five, “Search my heart” refers to Psalm 139:1: “O LORD, you have searched me and known me” (NRSV). There are variant stanzas that include “Lord” after “feet,” “hand,” “me,” “child,” and “heart” in successive stanzas.
Fenno Heath (1926–2008), director of the Yale Glee Club from 1953–1992, provides a variant text (Bartholomew and Heath, 1996):
“Guide my head”
“Guide my hands”
“Guide my feet”
“Guide my heart”
His arrangement, originally for TTBB Choir, is available for SATB choir as well. This concertized spiritual is advanced choral literature that employs lush, inventive, and sometimes surprising harmonies. The arrangement found in The Faith We Sing is more suitable for congregational singing.
The arrangement by Wendell Whalum (1931–1987) first appeared in the A.M.E.C. Bicentennial Hymnal (1984) with the note: “Spiritual from the collection of Willis Laurence James (1900).” Willis Laurence James (1900–1966) was born in Montgomery, Alabama. James was a graduate (B. A. in Music, 1923) of Morehouse College (Atlanta, Georgia). After his studies at Morehouse, James started the music department at Leland College (Baker, Louisiana) in 1923. While at Leland, he began his work as a folklorist by collecting black folk songs in the vicinity of a former sugar plantation along the Mississippi River.
In 1933, James began his career at Spelman College (Atlanta, Georgia), where he remained on faculty until he died in 1966. In 1939, he received a General Education Board Grant that allowed him to collect black folk songs in South Carolina Sea Islands, the coal mining regions of Alabama, the southern region of Georgia, and Florida’s coastal regions. In the grant proposal, James wrote:
It is not enough merely to collect these songs, it is necessary to possess a first-hand knowledge of Negro customs, modes of expression, intimate domestic life and attitudes . . . Great patience and understanding are required to win their [Negroes’] confidence and to have them sing with the naturalness and abandon with which they sing among themselves . . . I believe that I am qualified to undertake the work because I am a Negro, a singer, and a composer. (James, 1995, p. xiii)
It is probably during his 1939 field research that James collected this spiritual. He uses “Guide My Feet” as an example of “Negro folk harmony and melody,” the example appears below (James, 1995, p. 11).
James notes that this melody is one sung in Georgia. “The tune is made from three tones and two intervals, yet it has great power” (James, 1995, p. 11). In the tune, there is no fourth or leading tone present in the melody or harmony. This arrangement is the basis for Wendell Whalum’s version found in most hymnals today.
Wendell Whalum is a graduate of Morehouse College. It is there that Whalum first worked with James as a member of the Morehouse College Glee Club and later as his colleague when he joined the faculty of Morehouse College in 1953. Whalum and James both contributed to the musical community in Atlanta. Whalum served as minister of music at Friendship Baptist Church, where James was a member.
The call-and-response pattern is not present in the arrangement found in The Faith We Sing. It can still be achieved by assigning measures 1–2, 5–6, 9–10 to a cantor, and with the choir and congregation singing the response. In the A. M. E. C. Bicentennial Hymnal, a “leader” sings only the first two measures, and the choir and congregation sing the response.
This spiritual is about faith for everlasting peace and freedom. One can use this spiritual during the first two weeks of Advent, the Sundays after Pentecost, and throughout Lent. It will work best as a closing hymn of a worship service, preparing the congregation to weather the difficulties of the week that follows.
“Guide My feet” was sung during the Civil Rights Movement, as demonstrated by Dock Reese from a Smithsonian Folkways recording: https://youtu.be/he62Xjp0FCg. Reese begins each stanza with “Jesus.” Reese also demonstrates how one can add stanzas extemporaneously. Jacqueline Hairston has arranged the spiritual for solo voice: https://youtu.be/_980GLzITqo.
Marshall Bartholomew and Fenno Heath, Traditional Spirituals: Arranged by Marshall Bartholomew and Fenno Heath. (New York: G. Schirmer, 1996).
Rebecca T. Cureau, “Willis Laurence James and the Preservation of Black Religious Folk Song.” Black Sacred Music: A Journal of Theomusicology 4, no. 2 (1990): 1–13. https://doi-org.proxy.libraries.smu.edu/10.1215/10439455-4.2.1 (accessed February 1, 2021).
Carl P. Daw Jr., Glory to God: A Companion (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2016).
Fisk University. Social Science Institute. Unwritten History of Slavery: Autobiographical Account of Negro Ex-Slaves, Ophelia Settles Egypt, interviewer, Social Science Source Document No. 1 (Nashville: Social Science Institute, Fisk University, 1945).
Guenther, Eileen, In Their Own Words: Slave Life and the Power of Spirituals. (St. Louis: Morning Star Music Publishers, 2016).
Willis, James, and Jon Michael Spencer, Stars in de elements: A Study of Negro Folk Music; Black Sacred Music: A Journal of Theomusicology 9, nos. 1, 2 (1995): 1–2. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.
Darnell St. Romain is the Associate Director of Liturgical Music at Prince of Peace Catholic Community, Plano, Texas, where he directs the children and handbell choirs and assists in the preparation of the Liturgical Choir. He holds degrees in organ performance from Louisiana State University and Southern Methodist University as well as a master of sacred music degree. Darnell is a candidate in the doctor of pastoral music program at Perkins School of Theology where he has studied hymnology with C. Michael Hawn.