History of Hymns: 'I am Weak but Thou Art Strong'
By C. Michael Hawn
“I Am Weak but Thou Art Strong” (“Just a Closer Walk with Thee”)
The Faith We Sing, 2158
I am weak, but thou art strong,
Jesus, keep me from all wrong;
I’ll be satisfied as long
As I walk, let me walk close with Thee.
Just a closer walk with Thee,
grant it, Jesus, if you please [is my plea],
daily walking close to Thee:
Let it be, dear Lord, let it be.
The precise origins of this traditional hymn are unknown, though it seems to have gained popularity both in print and in recordings during the 1940s. During this era and in the musical cultures that generated this song, it was common for a musician to take a commonly known song, make a musical arrangement, including adding a stanza or refrain, and then claiming ownership. These arrangements were often published in convention songbooks, inexpensive publications designed for specific events or for a season produced by local or regional publishers without the resources of more sophisticated publishing houses. Sometimes the owner of a song could not be found. Royalties could be avoided by attributing the song as “traditional” (Shearon, 2019, n.p.).
1. Elijah Cluke
Some sources identify Elijah Cluke (1907-1974), an African American foundry worker from Atchison County, Kansas, as the composer of the song (“Wonders of Atchison County,” n.p.). Documentation to support the assertion that this minister and singer composed the song is not available. It may have been that he popularized, rather than composed it (Daw, 2016, 796).
2. Convention Publishers
Another source suggests that “the earliest publications seem to have been in the convention songbooks of the Stamps-Baxter Music and Printing Company in the late 1940s” (Adams, 1992, 145). Resources available to the author indicate that the song appeared regularly by the late 1940s and early 1950s in Stamps-Baxter Publications, including Peaceful Echoes (Dallas, 1948), Radio Specials and Spirituals (Dallas, 1948), Choice Specials (Dallas, 1950) edited by J. R. Baxter, and Inspirational Melodies (Dallas, 1952). However, sole credit cannot be assumed by Stamps-Baxter publications for disseminating this song, as numerous quartet and revival collections from other publishers in the same era also indicate the song’s popularity, including John Daniel’s Quartet Song Book No. 6 (Nashville, 1949), James D. Vaughan’s Gospel Echoes (Lawrenceburg, Tennessee, 1949), Crusade Songs “Designed” for Revival Campaigns (Winona Lake, Indiana, 1951), a publication of the famous Rodeheaver, Hall Mack Co., Thompson Music Company’s Timely Songs for Church, Singing School and Conventions (Lake Charles, Louisiana, 1951), and Three Hundred Country Chapel Songs and Hymns (Blytheville, Arkansas, 1953), edited by Albert E. Brumley and published by Radio Station KLCN. These sources in toto demonstrate that the song was firmly established in the publications of the convention gospel community by the late 1940s. Furthermore, the song’s presence in the late 1940s indicates that it was widely sung at least some years before these publications.
3. Kenneth Morris
Musicologist Horace Clarence Boyer offers a tantalizing story that sheds further light on the earlier dissemination of the hymn, if not on its exact origin, in the African American context:
On a train trip from Kansas City to Chicago, [African American composer Kenneth] Morris exited the train on one of its stops to get some fresh air and heard one of the station porters singing a song. He paid little attention at first, but after he reboarded the train the song remained with him and became so prominent in his mind that at the next stop he left the train, took another train back to the earlier station, and asked the porter to sing the song again. Morris wrote down the words and music and published the song “Just a Closer Walk with Thee” that year, 1940, adding a few lyrics of his own to provide more breadth. Within two years the song became a standard in gospel music, eventually becoming a standard in jazz, and then moving into the realm of American folk music, known and sung by many (Boyer, 1995, 75).
In another account by Morris (1917-1989), he claims that “it was an arrangement that I made on an old spiritual. It was a plantation song, and I heard it and liked it so well that I came and made an arrangement of it” (Reagon, 1992, 336). He continues with more specific information:
I went to Kansas City, to a conference of some kind, and one of the choirs there sang it. I asked them where they heard it, and they asked their choir director, Mr. William R. Hurse, where they had gotten it from. He didn’t know; he had heard it all his life. I had never heard it before. I am the one who made the arrangement; the first one that was put in print was mine. I took it to the National Baptist Convention in 1944 and presented it with my group, the Martin and Morris Singers, and it simply clicked. After we left there, everybody was using it (Reagon, 336).
It has been determined that the version being sung by the choir in Kansas City was a well-known arrangement by prominent gospel musicians Robert Anderson and R.L. Knowles. Based on these accounts, it is most likely that rising African American gospel song composer Kenneth Morris, influenced by this arrangement, provided the first printed music in 1940 that propelled the song into wider use. Soon after this, a wide range of recording artists included this song on albums. Bernice Johnson Reagon provides Morris’s arrangement in her book on African American gospel composers (Reagon, 334-335). In Morris’s version, the repetitive rhythmic pattern of the choral ensemble (quartet) in the refrain supports the soloists (male and female). While not an exact rendition, the following YouTube recording by Bill Gaither captures much of the flavor of Morris’s rendition: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KStZ40DlOQc.
4. Robert Wisnett
With regret, Morris notes that he did not copyright his arrangement at first and that “a white Southern publisher named [Robert Emmett] Winsett [1876-1952] . . . wanted to put it in his book” (Reagon, 336). Winsett’s name does appear as the composer of the song on some recordings. His hymnal in which the song appears is Best of All (Dayton, Tennessee, 1951, No. 38). As noted by Morris, the arrangement is much the same, with the exception that Winsett published his version in the manner of shape-note hymnody. Since the arrangement by Morris is clearly dated 1940, and Winsett published his version in 1951, Winsett’s claim of authorship is in doubt. It is also possible that the song appears in African American convention gospel song publications (Shearon, 2019, n.p.).
Dissemination Through Recordings
While not exclusively sung and recorded in the African American community, the song is strongly identified with the African American experience. The Selah Jubilee Singers, a black gospel quartet, made the first known recording of the song on October 8, 1941, for Decca Records (Dixon, 1997, 786). They were widely known for their radio broadcasts (Ruben, 2001, 163) and as the first gospel group to play in the famed Apollo Theater in New York City in 1955 (Fox, 1983, 227-231). For a recording of the Selah Jubilee Singers singing “Precious Lord, Take My Hand” by Thomas A. Dorsey (1899-1993), a hymn in a similar style, go to https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nocdd7sBjcA. A largely instrumental version of “Just a Closer Walk” performed in 1941 by members of the Selah Jubilee Singers may be heard at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_WslnMfwAPI.
Sister Rosetta Tharpe (1915-1973) followed almost immediately with a recording in December 1941, The Lonesome Road (Decca). Both the Selah Jubilee Singers and Tharpe were known for crossing the divide between secular and sacred music and incorporating popular musical styles into their performances. This may have led to the song’s further adaptation to the New Orleans Dixieland context.
Following these initial recordings, many black and white artists made recordings, including the Sallie Martin Singers (mid-1940s), Red Foley (1950), Pat Boone (1952), Tennessee Ernie Ford (1957), Ella Fitzgerald (1967), Joan Baez (1969), Bob Dylan and Johnny Cash (1969), and many others. This was a time when white country music artists recorded and popularized many sacred songs (Shearon, 2017, 395-396). In particular, Red Foley (1910-1968) was the first white artist to popularize sacred songs from the African American tradition, followed in quick succession by more recognized artists, including his son-in-law, Pat Boone, and Tennessee Ernie Ford. (Shearon, 2019, n.p.), Most recently, the Boston Community Choir sang this song in a tribute to United States Senator Ted Kennedy at the John F. Kennedy Library (2009).
New Orleans Jazz Tradition
The now traditional use of the song in New Orleans Jazz funerals is well known. The confluence of French and Spanish martial music placed within the African American cultural context began near the start of the twentieth century. The use of the song was extra-liturgical during the first half of the twentieth century, however, since neither the white nor the black communities approved of the performance of music in the jazz idiom in church, and the Catholic Church did not approve of secular music at a funeral. Thus, this music was used in processionals to and from the cemetery beyond the church walls. Paul R. Powell offers a succinct account of the many cultural influences that affected the development of music in New Orleans (Powell, 2015, 5-8).
Beginning in the 1960s, the practice of the jazz funeral spread across social and ethnic boundaries to the point that it became an honor to have a jazz procession where musicians would participate as a sign of respect for the deceased person. While not the only song played on the funeral procession from the home, funeral home, or church to the cemetery accompanied by family, and friends and a brass band, “Just a Closer Walk with Thee” remains the tune most associated with this practice, especially as a dirge. This song is then often followed by an upbeat rendition of “When the Saints Go Marching In” after the burial, when the band leads the celebration out of the cemetery.
Noting the numerous recordings by various artists, its use in African American conventions and all-night “gospel sings,” and its tradition in New Orleans by the Preservation Hall Jazz Band and with jazz funerals, hymnologist Paul Westermeyer observes, “Though profoundly congregational in its scope, this piece presents challenges for communal song, because it is so associated with virtuosic singers and players and their improvisatory capacities” (Westermeyer, 2010, 553).
Textual Analysis and Variants
The continued resonance with this text, especially in the African American community, may be found in scripture, indicating that one’s faith “walk” is an active journey where the roadmap is found in God’s statutes and commandments (Deuteronomy 8:6; 2 John 1:6); furthermore, one is not alone in this “walk,” regardless of what happens in life (Psalm 23:4).
The words, virtually identical in all hymnal publications, have been slightly updated to indicate more standard English language, spellings, and punctuation than that used by Morris. One crucial difference exists in the second line of the refrain. Most publications state, “Grant it, Jesus, is my plea.” This is the version sung on recordings that ascribed authorship to Winsett. Morris’s text (cited throughout this article) used the phrase, “Grant it, Jesus, if you please,” a version retained in Songs of Zion, 46; African American Heritage Hymnal, 455. This variation, found in some African American collections as well as performances, is a subtle difference reflecting a community that draws primarily upon oral/aural communication where such adaptations are common. The variation may also indicate a theological stance of humility before an all-powerful God.
Hymnody provides many examples of walking closely with God. Carl P. Daw, Jr. notes several examples. In the eighteenth century, “O for a Closer Walk with God” by William Cowper (1731-1800) stands out. In the nineteenth century, two hymns by Fanny J. Crosby (1820-1915) stand out, including the lesser known “Closer Walk with Thee” (1885) and the more commonly sung “Close to Thee” (1874), which ends, “Close to thee . . . savior let me walk with thee.” The African American spiritual, “I Want Jesus to Walk with Me” also resonates with this theme (Daw, 2016, 796).
In stanza 1, the singer is “weak” and lives in a world of “wrong.” The way to be “satisfied” is by invoking Jesus who is “strong” and by walking closely beside him. A daily close walk with Christ in an attitude of contrition leads the pilgrim to become more Christ-like. As James 4:8 notes, “Come close to God, and God will come close to you. Wash your hands, you sinners; purify your hearts, for your loyalty is divided between God and the world (NLT).
Thru this world of toils and snares,
If I falter, Lord, who cares[?],
Who with me my burdens shares[?],
None but thee, dear Lord, none but thee.
In the second stanza, the singer feels despondent in a “world of toils and snares.” The “world of toil” is a description of African American experience throughout slavery, Reconstruction, and industrialization. Scripture is replete with references to “snares,” especially in the psalms (Psalm 9:6; 18:5; 91:3, 142:3-4, KJV). This assertion is followed by two rhetorical questions: “If I falter, Lord, who cares?” A second question—"Who with me my burden bears?” (Psalm 55:22) —receives a welcome response, “None but thee, dear Lord, none but thee.”
When my feeble life is o'er,
Times for me won’t be no more;
Guide me gently, safely o'er
to Thy kingdom shore, to Thy shore.
Like many gospel songs, this stanza leads the singer to heaven. The one with whom we walk in life will “guide [us] gently, safely o’er . . . to thy shore.”
A fourth stanza has been ascribed to R. E. Winsett, but does not appear in any recent publications or on recordings, possibly because it does not add any content or poetic meaning to the established third stanza:
When life’s sun sets in the west,
Lord, may I have done my best.
May I find sweet peace and rest,
In that home, glad home, of the blest.
Musically, the tune, usually designated as CLOSER WALK, is indicated as “traditional” or “anonymous.” Hymnals do not use the arrangement by Kenneth Morris. However, virtually every hymnal uses the same harmonization without attribution. This version may have been by J.R. Baxter (1887-1960). One cannot help but notice that the chromaticism of the opening line lends itself to a jazz-style accompaniment. Each of the supporting voices in the standard harmonization employs at least one chromatic passing tone at some point. Commenting on these musical features and other characteristics, musicologist Stephen Shearon notes,
This song has the hallmarks of a professionally produced song (Morris, perhaps) and also the hallmarks of something from African American sources in the tradition of Charles Albert Tindley [1851-1953]. . . This, it seems to me, is one of the clues that this song was written either professionally or by a trained musician. Other clues are the clear structure of both lyric and form, and perhaps even the use of the same melody for both verse and chorus. There are elements of it that seem to me more literate than oral (Shearon, 2019, n.p.).
A gospel quartet version by J.D. Summer and the Stamps (ca. 1960s) is available at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KlYbV8ncUaI. For a classic New Orleans version sung by Mahalia Jackson and Louis Armstrong (1970) concluding with a Dixieland rendition of “When the saints go marching in,” see https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3wX-YWOr8RQ.
Sources and Further Reading
Jere V. Adams, Handbook to the Baptist Hymnal (Nashville: Convention Press, 1992).
Horace Clarence Boyer, How Sweet the Sound: The Golden Age of Gospel (Washington, D.C.: Elliott & Clark Publishing, 1995).
Carl P. Daw, Jr., Glory to God: A Companion (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2016).
Robert M. W. Dixon, Blues and Gospel Records: 1890-1943 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1997).
Ted Fox, Showtime at the Apollo (New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1983).
Paul R. Powell, “Jazz, Jambalaya, and Jubilee in New Orleans: The Unique Culture that Birthed a Unique Music,” The Hymn 66:1 (Winter 2015), 5-8. https://babel.hathitrust.org/cgi/pt?id=mdp.39015080981262&view=1up&seq=9.
Bernice Johnson Reagon, We’ll Understand It Better By and By: Pioneering African American Gospel Composers (Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1992).
Rachel Rubin, American Popular Music: New Approaches to the Twentieth Century (Amherst, Massachusetts: University of Massachusetts Press, 2001).
Stephen Shearon, email correspondence with author, July 27, 2019.
_____. “The Sacred in Country Music,” The Oxford Companion of Country Music, Ed. Travis D. Stimeling (New York: Oxford University Press, 2017, 395-415).
Paul Westermeyer, Hymnal Companion: Evangelical Lutheran Worship (Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress Press, 2010).
“Wonders of Atchison County: Your Top 10 Winners of the Wonders of Atchison County People,” Atchison County Historical Society: https://web.archive.org/web/20130403014114/http://www.atchisonhistory.org/WondersAtchisonCountyPeople.html.
Verses marked NLT are from the New Living Translation (NLT) Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers, Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.
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.