History of Hymns: 'Jesus Is a Rock in a Weary Land'
By C. Michael Hawn
“Jesus Is a Rock in a Weary Land”
African American Spiritual
Worship & Song, 3074
Jesus is a rock in a weary land,
a weary land, a weary land;
my Jesus is a rock in a weary land,
a shelter in the time of storm.
No one can do like Jesus,
not a mumbling word he said:
he went walking down to Lazarus’ grave,
and he raised him from the dead.
This song of African American origin is characterized by a memorable refrain that has remained constant for over a century; the stanzas, however, vary from publication to publication. The repetition of words in the refrain’s first three lines indicates that its origins may lie in oral rather than written tradition. The two primary elements of the refrain text—“rock in a weary land” and “shelter in the time of storm”—echo several scripture passages, all taken from the King James Version, which was most likely the source (relevant lines are italicized):
Isaiah 25:4: “For thou hast been a strength to the poor, a strength to the needy in his distress, a refuge from the storm, a shadow from the heat, when the blast of the terrible ones is as a storm against the wall.”
Isaiah 4:6: “And there shall be a tabernacle for a shadow in the day time from the heat, and for a place of refuge, and for a covert from storm and from rain.”
Isaiah 32:2: “And a man shall be as an hiding place from the wind, and a covert from the tempest; as rivers of water in a dry place, as the shadow of a great rock in a weary land.”
Psalm 61:3: “For thou hast been a shelter for me, and a strong tower from the enemy.”
African American minister and authority on the spirituals Wyatt Tee Walker (1928–2018) comments:
The choice of the “rock” metaphor is not random. In that much-beloved hymn, “Beneath the cross of Jesus,” an early verse in the first stanza reminds us of this hymn under scrutiny: “The shadow of a mighty Rock within a weary land;” As Elizabeth Clephane mined this metaphor from the Scriptures and fitted it into the traditions of Christian hymnody, so did our forebearers of another day transform this same idea into a part of the lexicon of the musical heritage of the Black religious experience. (Walker, 1988, p. 6, italics in original)
The incipit (opening line) of the refrain has several versions, most notably “Oh, Jesus is a rock,” “My God is a rock,” “My Lord is a rock,” and “King Jesus is a rock.” An early printed version appears in A Collection of Revival Hymns and Plantation Melodies (Cincinnati, 1883), compiled by African American Methodist Episcopal minister Marshall. W. Taylor (1846–1887). The song, ascribed to Margaret Nicols with the inscription Psalm 94:22—“But the Lord is my defense; and my God is the rock of my refuge.”—begins, “Why my Jesus is a rock in a wearied land . . .” The minor-mode melody is notated in even eighth notes with sermonic stanzas separated from the music:
- The sinner sees a mote in the Christian’s eye,
But he can’t see the beam in his own.
O never mind, sinner, you’d better go and pray,
And let God’s children alone.
- I’ll sweep my house with the gospel broom,
I’m sure I’ll sweep it clean;
If ever I reach my heavenly home,
Then sinner, you’ll not be seen.
- I’ll wash my robe in Jesus’ blood
And travel in my way;
I’m battling by the Word of God,
I’m ready for the judgment-day. (Marshall, 1883, no. 122)
Another early version appears in the Baptist African American collection, Spirituals Triumphant Old and New (1927), edited by Edward Boatner (1898–1981) and Willa Townsend (1880–1947). The melody of the refrain, beginning, “Oh, Jesus,” descends on even eighth notes in a minor mode and remains in the lower register for most of the refrain.
More recent publications also begin with a descending line but with a dotted-eighth, sixteenth-note figure that reflects more contemporary gospel styles. Both versions incorporate syncopation on “weary land.”
In the example from Spirituals Triumphant, “Wm. Henry Smith” is indicated in the upper right-hand section. William Henry Smith (1909–1944), a composer and arranger of spirituals, was Dean of Music (1939–43) at Wiley College (Marshall, Texas), a historically black institution. His sister, Adelaide E. Boatner, married Edward Boatner. Smith succeeded Boatner as Dean of Music at Wiley College. Smith was likely the arranger rather than the composer of this selection, following the practice of other ascriptions in the collection. In Boatner’s collection, the two stanzas are simple—more like bridges between refrains:
- ’Postle Paul declared, ‘Postle Paul declared Jesus is a rock . . .
- ’Postle John declared, ‘Postle John declared Jesus is a rock . . . (Boatner, 1927, no. 59)
Other publications incorporate a wide range of biblically based stanzas. Lydia Parrish (1871–1953) was a native of New Jersey who spent many winters on St. Simons Island with her husband, artist Maxfield Parrish. Her extended experience in these isolated islands led to her compilation, Slave Songs of the Georgia Sea Islands (1942). Based on her observations, she suggests that “This song belongs to the exhorting-sermon type which has an African counterpart. The old-time preacher rhythmically changed his sermon; at effective intervals he broke into song, in which he was joined by the congregation” (Parrish, 1942, p. 161).
This sermonic use of the refrain opens a way to understand why so many different stanzas appear in print. The refrain was an invitation by the preacher to the people to join in the sermon. Improvised stanzas would focus on the particular biblical passage(s) of the day, with the people often humming the refrain under the quasi-sung sermon text.
Some of these became codified in print. One popular variant involved numbering selected biblical events (from one to ten), beginning with creation and ending with the promise of the Second Coming, designed to instruct the faithful on the scope of the story of redemption:
Stop’n let me tell you about Chapter One,
When the Lord God’s work has just begun,
Stop’n let me tell you about Chapter Two,
When the Lord God’s written his Bible through.
Stop’n let me tell you about Chapter Three,
When the Lord God died on Calvary. [Refrain]
Stop’n let me tell you about Chapter Four,
When the Lord God visit among the po’.
Stop’n let me tell you ‘bout Chapter Five,
When the Lord God brought the dead alive.
Stop’n let me tell you ‘bout Chapter Six,
He went to Jerusalem and healed the sick. [Refrain]
Stop’n let me tell you about Chapter Seven,
Died and risen and went Heav’n.
Stop’n let me tell you about Chapter Eight,
He was knockin’ at the Golden Gate.
Stop’n let me tell you about Chapter Nine,
Lord God turned the water to wine.
Stop’n let me tell you about Chapter Ten,
John says He’s comin’ in the world again. [Refrain] (Peters, 1993, p. 86)
A choral arrangement that preserves the sermonic style was published by Alice Parker and Robert Shaw (Lawson-Gould, 1963, https://www.debisimons.com/whats-the-significance-of-the-rock-and-the-chapters-in-my-god-is-a-rock).
Some stanzas exhorted the faithful not to stray:
I wouldn’t be a sinner*,
I’ll tell you the reason why
I’m afraid the Lord might call my name and
I wouldn’t be ready to die.
*second stanza, backslider.
Ethnomusicologist Alan Lomax (1915–2002) recorded Bessie Jones in his New York apartment in 1961. One of her stanzas conflates the Song of Solomon 2:1, Isaiah 14:12, and Daniel 6:
He is the lily of the valley,
He is the bright and the morning star,
When they put ol’ Daniel in the lion’s den,
Jesus locked the lion’s jaws. (Lomax and Jones, 1961, recording)
Lomax made an earlier field recording with G.D. Vowell in Harlan, Kentucky, in 1937. His version is in a major mode and has stanzas based on the familial trope in many folk songs: “I wish to meet my mother there” (followed by father, sister, brother, etc.).
Recent publications include African American Heritage Hymnal (2001), Evangelical Lutheran Worship (2006), Worship & Song (2011), Lead Me, Guide Me, 2nd Ed. (2012), and Lift Up Your Hearts (2013). These hymnals use the stanzas and musical notation provided by Wyatt Tee Walker, reflecting syncopation and chromaticism found in current Black gospel styles. The stanzas focus on Jesus’ healing power (st. 1), humility (st. 2), and return in victory (st. 3).
1. No man can do like Jesus,
Not a mumbling word He said;
He went walking down to Lazarus’ grave,
And He raised him from the dead. [John 11:38–44]
2. When Jesus was on earth,
The flesh was very weak;
He girdled Himself with a towel
And washed His disciples’ feet. [John 13:1–17]
3. Yonder comes my Savior,
Him whom I love so well;
He has the palm of victory,
And the keys of death and Hell. [Revelation 1:17–18]
Walker indicates that his textual and musical version came from the Silver Strands, a 1960s San Diego-based musical ensemble of United States Navy personnel.
Several artists recorded the song in the mid-twentieth century on 78 rpm discs, indicating its popularity. The Black quintet Selah Jubilee Singers recorded “King Jesus is a rock in a weary land” in 1941 (Decca). Frank Sinatra recorded this song with The Charioteers in 1945 with the flip side, “I’ve got a home on that rock” (Columbia 37853). Gospel singer Evelyn Starks (1922–2015) and the Original Gospel Harmonettes included the song on a recording in 1952 (RCA Victor 20-4932). Black gospel singer Bessie Griffin (1922–1989) recorded the song with The Caravans in 1953 (Status, S-137). The Original Five Blind Boys released a recording in 1953 (Peacock 1723). Remarkably, the musical style varies dramatically with each recording, and the stanzas have almost nothing in common.
The words of the refrain are identical to the refrain of “The Lord’s our rock, in him we hide” (“A Shelter in the Time of Storm”), a white gospel hymn text by British headmaster Vernon J. Charlesworth (1839–1915) set to music by noted revival musician Ira D. Sankey (1840–1908). Charlesworth’s text was written around 1880. The melody is in a major mode, and the refrain lacks the descending phrases and syncopation of the spiritual version (see https://hymnary.org/media/fetch/123002). Other than the identical text of the refrain, the relationship, if any, between the two strands of the song has not been established. This version influenced the lively rendition of Jamaican gospel singer Gloria Bailey (1929–2019), who was active in the 1960s and 70s. It is featured on her album Gloria Bailey Greatest Hits (1974) [https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ogPAMg4iVqI].
Edward Boatner, Spirituals Triumphant Old and New (Nashville: Sunday School Publishing Board, National Baptist Convention, 1927).
Alan Lomax, Field Work, Bessie Jones 1961–1962, New York City (October 1961), “My God Is a Rock in a Weary Land,” https://archive.culturalequity.org/field-work/bessie-jones-1961-1962/new-york-city-1061/my-god-rock-weary-land (accessed December 9, 2022).
Lydia Parrish, Slave Songs of the Georgia Sea Islands (Athens: University of Georgia Press,  1992).
Erskine Peters, Lyrics of the Afro-American Spiritual: A Documentary Collection (Westport, Connecticut: Greenwood Press, 1993).
William Henry Smith, obituary, “Wiley Music Dean Dies in Chicago,” Baltimore Afro-American (June 17, 1944), https://news.google.com/newspapers?id=FGpGAAAAIBAJ&sjid=d-UMAAAAIBAJ&pg=3264%2C2732715 (accessed December 9, 2022).
Marshall W. Taylor, A Collection of Revival Hymns and Plantation Melodies (Cincinnati: Marshal W. Taylor and W. Echols, 1883).
Wyatt Tee Walker, Spirits that Dwell in Deep Woods II: The Prayer and Praise Hymns of the Black Religious Experience (New York: Martin Luther King Fellows Press, 1988).
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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