Home Worship Planning History of Hymns History of Hymns: 'It's Me, It's Me, O Lord' ('Standing in the Need of Prayer')

History of Hymns: 'It's Me, It's Me, O Lord' ('Standing in the Need of Prayer')

By Darrell St. Romain

“It’s Me, It’s Me, O Lord” (“Standing in the Need of Prayer”)
African American Spiritual
The United Methodist Hymnal, 352
Songs of Zion, 110

It’s me, it’s me, O Lord,
standing in the need of prayer.
It’s me, it’s me, O Lord,
standing in the need of prayer.

Nothing is more personal than prayer. It is our line of communication to God. Emotions run deeply in this form of devotion. Whether our prayers express joy or sadness, praise or lament, reconciliation or contrition, prayer touches the most inner depths of our being. Enslaved Africans created a genre of song born out of a harrowing experience of daily struggle yet filled with the hope that God was in control and would deliver them out of their bondage.

“It’s Me, It’s Me, O Lord” reveals the intimate nature of prayer. It’s not my mother or father, sister or brother, or the preacher or deacon that needs prayer: it's me. After praying for everyone else, it’s my time to make my petition. I need God to do what I know God can do. St. Augustine of Hippo, a fifth-century saint of African descent, describes prayer in this manner: “For in most cases prayer consists more in groaning than in speaking, in tears rather than in words. But He setteth our tears in His sight, and our groaning is not hidden from Him who made all things by the word, and does not need human words” (Letter 130 to Proba, X.20). With all that the enslaved Africans endured, tears and groanings were likely commonplace in their prayer. Sr. Thea Bowman notes:

When African Americans met or congregated, they consoled and strengthened themselves and one another in sacred song—moans, chats, shouts, psalms, hymns, and jubilees, first African songs, then African American songs. In the crucible of separation and suffering, African American sacred song was formed (Bowman, 1987, p. i).

Eileen Guenther has identified over forty primary themes that encompass the body of work that is spirituals (Guenther, 2016, p. 354). “It’s Me, It’s Me, O Lord” falls into several categories. The text reveals that accountability and humility are required to live a Christian life. Familial and community relationships are present in the stanzas of this spiritual. Guenther states, “in Spirituals, ‘I’ equals ‘we’ in the African sensibility, where individuals are responsible for the whole community, not only for themselves” (Guenther, 2016, p. 355). St. Cyprian of Carthage, a third-century saint of African descent, echoes this sensibility:

Before all things, the Teacher of peace and the Master of unity would not have a prayer to be made singly and individually, as for one who prays to pray for himself alone . . . Our prayer is public and common; and when we pray, we pray not for one, but for the whole people, because we the whole people are one (Treatise IV.8).

Enslaved people turned to God for hope or deliverance. Below is a testimony of an unknown enslaved African:

I pray now and just tell God to take me and do his will, for he knows every secret of my heart. He knows what we stand most in need of before we ask for it, and if we trust him, he will give us what we ought to have in good season (Johnson, 1969, p. 58; cited in Guenther, 2016, p. 124).

Former slave William H. Robinson recalls this about prayer:

My mother had taught me to get on my knees and say my prayers, as far back as I could remember, yet I never knew the power there was in prayer. (Robinson, 1913, p. 58; cited in Guenther, 2016, p. 124)

These testimonies reveal how prayer links us to God and how familial bonds teach and pass down prayer.

This widely known Negro spiritual comes from the perspective of the first person singular. William B. McClain notes, “The slaves saw the assurance of salvation as largely a personal responsibility. Realizing imperfection, the people affirmed in this song a total and complete reliance upon the grace of God” (McClain, 1990, p. 101). Liberation theologian James Cone reveals, “If God is known as the liberator of the oppressed from bondage, and Jesus is his Son who is still present today, then the ‘Sinner Man’ is everyman, who is in need of divine liberation. He is the person who needs ‘dat ol' time religion’ or the one ‘standin’ in the need of prayer’” (Cone, 1972, p. 82; cited in Young. 1993, p. 436).

Like most Negro spirituals, this text has many variations, and the music has many arrangements. This Negro spiritual is sometimes referenced by the title, “Standing in the Need of Prayer.” The text appeared in James Weldon Johnson and J. Rosamond Johnson’s The Book of American Negro Spirituals (1925) with the stanzas as follows:

Tain’t my mother or my father,
But it's me, O, Lord,
Standing in the need of prayer.

Tain’t my deacon or my leader,
But it's me, O, Lord,
Standing in the need of prayer.

Another version of the text appears in a collection edited by Natalie Curtis-Burlin (2001, p. 51):

‘Tis me, ‘tis me, O Lord,
Standin’ in de need of prayer—
O Lord!
‘Tis me, ‘tis me, O Lord,
Standin' in de need of prayer.

‘Tis not my Mudder but it’s me, O Lord,
Standin’ in de need of prayer—
O Lord!
‘Tis not my Mudder but it’s me, O Lord,
Standin’ in de need of prayer.

These variants transcribe the dialect, reflecting the speech of the enslaved Africans. Using the dialect created a performance that closely resembled slaves singing their indigenous song. Singing spirituals in dialect by Caucasian choirs remains a topic of much debate. This article will not address this, but it should be noted, not using the dialect may change the rhythms of certain spirituals.

National Jubilee Melodies (1916) printed the first version of this text as “Standing In Need Of Prayer.” Appearances in Golden Bells (1923), Songs of the Cross (1924), and Seth Parker’s Hymnal (1930) soon followed. After 1930, only The Hymnal (1942) published the text until it appeared in Songs of Zion (1981). Since its inclusion in Songs of Zion, more than twenty hymnals included it in collections. Come, Let Us Worship: The Korean–English Presbyterian Hymnal (2001) translated “It’s Me, It’s Me, O Lord” into Korean.

The various texts that appear in hymnals since 1981 may use dialect for standing—standin’. The stanzas may vary in small ways, for example: “Not my brother, not my sister,” or “Not my brother, nor my sister.” In the second stanza, sometimes “elder” replaces “preacher.” A fourth stanza appears in most current hymnals that does not appear in The United Methodist Hymnal: “Not the stranger, nor my neighbor.” The Psalter Hymnal (1987) arranges the stanzas of this Negro spiritual as a call-and-response. Leader: “Not my brother, nor my sister, but it’s me O, Lord,” All: “standing in the need of prayer.”

Harry T. Burleigh’s arrangement, “‘Tis me, O Lord; Standin’ in de need of prayer” (1918), sets the text in D minor for the first nine measures. Burleigh changes to F major in the refrain. The shift from minor to major denotes a subtle rhetorical change as the singer becomes aware of the need (Moon, 2004, p. 293).

Standing in the need of prayer sheet music
Source: Old Songs Hymnal: Words and Melodies for the State of Georgia (1929).

William Farley Smith (1941–1997) arranged most of the spirituals, including “It’s Me, It’s Me, O Lord,” in 1986 for The United Methodist Hymnal at the request of the Hymnal Revision Committee for which he served as a consultant in African American music and worship (Young, 1993, p. 834). Whereas the version in Songs of Zion is almost totally diatonic, Farley Smith’s arrangement approaches that of the concertized spiritual with chromatic harmonies and, at one point (m. 5), an independent bass line.

The liturgical uses for this spiritual are numerous and varied. It works well as a simple prayer response or an invitational response to an altar call. The singing of the spiritual would be effective during the ritual gesture of the imposition of hands during the Service of Ordination as the ordinands recognize that they are “standing in the need of prayer.” Sr. Ester Mary, N.C.T. recalls this spiritual used during a baptismal celebration:

It is solemn Evensong at the mission of St. Simon of Cyrene, near Cincinnati, Ohio. Fr. Wilson, the priest in charge, has just announced, “The service of Holy Baptism will be found on page 273 of the Prayer Book.” With the acolytes he goes to the center of the sanctuary. As he turns to the font, the words ring out: “It’s me, it’s me, O Lord.” Like an answering wave comes for the congregation of colored people—“Standing in the need of prayer.” (Mary, 1990, p. 40)

We all need prayer. This spiritual acknowledges this need. When singing this text, let us remember that the use of “me” really means “we.”

The Clark Atlanta University Choir sings Moses Hogan’s (1957–2003) arrangement of “Standing In the Need of Prayer.” This is straightforward homophonic setting of the text with few embellishments except the addition of “have mercy” and “good Lordy” by the basses to the refrain.

A Black-gospel arrangement of “Standing in the Need” by gospel recording Artist John P. Kee (b. 1962) is popular among some Black congregations. This is a call-and-response arrangement with the text of two or more stanzas combined to create one stanza. This recording is complete with a testimony of how prayers produced a medical miracle.


Augustine of Hippo, Letter 130 (to Proba). X, 20:

https://www.newadvent.org/fathers/1102130.htm (accessed February 9, 2021).

Dorothy G. Bolton and H.T. Burleigh, Old Songs Hymnal. Words and Melodies from the State of Georgia (New York: The Century Company, 1929).

Sister Thea Bowman, F.S.P.S., “The Gift of African American Sacred Song,” Lead Me, Guide Me (Chicago: G.I.A. Publications, Inc., 1987), i-v.

Natalie Curtis-Burlin, ed. Negro Folk-Songs: The Hampton Series, Books I-IV Complete (Dover Publications, 2001).

James H. Cone, The Spirituals and the Blues (Maryknoll, New York: Orbis Books, 1927).

Cyrian of Carthage, “On the Lord’s Prayer,” Treatise IV, https://www.newadvent.org/fathers/050704.htm (accessed February 9, 2021).

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

Clifton H. Johnson, God Struck Me Dead: Voices of Ex-Slaves (New York: G. Schirmer, Inc., 1949).

Sister Ester Mary, N.C.T., “Spirituals in the Church,” Black Sacred Music 4, no.2 (Fall 1990): 40–46. https://doi-org.proxy.libraries.smu.edu/10.1215/10439455-4.2.40 (accessed February 1, 2021).

Brian Moon, “Harry Burleigh as Ethnomusicologist? Transcription, Arranging, and ‘The Old Songs Hymnal’.” Black Music Research Journal 24, no. 2 (Autumn2004): 287–307. https://doi:10.2307/4145495 (accessed February 1, 2021).

William B. McClain, A Companion to Songs of Zion: Come Sunday the Liturgy of Zion. (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1990).

William H. Robinson, From Log Cabin to the Pulpit or, Fifteen Years in Slavery. Reminiscences of My Early Life While in Slavery, 3rd ed. Eau Claire (Wisconsin: James H. Tifft Publishing Printer, 1913): http://www.docsouth.unc.edu/fpn/robinson/robinson.html (accessed February 5, 2021).

Carlton R Young, Companion to The United Methodist Hymnal (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1993).

Darrell St. Romain is Director of Music at Mary Immaculate Catholic Church in Farmers Branch, Texas, where he directs the adult choirs and serves as principal organist. He holds degrees in organ performance from Louisiana State University and Southern Methodist University and a master of sacred music degree from SMU. Currently, Darrell is a candidate in the doctor of pastoral music program at Perkins School of Theology, SMU.

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