History of Hymns: 'Just a Little Talk with Jesus'
By Mykayla Turner, Guest Contributor
“Just a Little Talk with Jesus”
by Cleavant Derricks
Worship & Song, 3107
I once was lost in sin,
but Jesus took me in,
and then a little light from heaven filled my soul’
it bathed my heart in love
and wrote my name above,
and just a little talk with Jesus made me whole.
Now let us have a little talk with Jesus,
let us tell him all about our troubles,
he will hear our faintest cry,
and he will answer by and by;
and when you feel a little prayer wheel turning,
and you know a little fire is burning,
you will find a little talk with Jesus makes it right.
© 1937 Bridge Building (BMI)
At the mention of “gospel song,” several interrelated genres come to mind. Does the term refer to the music of the White working class, or does it link more closely to the experiences of Black Christians? Is it a sacred or secular phenomenon? Do we locate gospel music in the twentieth or twenty-first century? Songs like “Just a Little Talk with Jesus” defy clear-cut answers to these questions, instead proposing “both/and” conclusions. While it is true that Tennessee native Cleavant Derricks (1910–1977) wrote “Just a Little Talk with Jesus” and its accompanying tune in the early twentieth century, some elements of the song predate its “first” appearance in Harbor Bells No. 6 (1937). Its legacy persists into the twenty-first century through ongoing appearances in hymnals like Zion Still Sings (2007) and One Lord, One Faith, One Baptism (2018).
Before entering the Army, Derricks developed a reputation for his leadership of an African American choral ensemble, Derrick Jubilee Singers, a group focused on singing spirituals in 1942 in his native Chattanooga. Following release from the service in 1945, he studied at the American Baptist Theological Seminary (now American Baptist College) in Nashville. He became pastor of Ebenezer Baptist Church in Knoxville, where he married Carrie Louise Glanton (1919–2005), with whom he had twin boys and a daughter. The 1950s included recording six tracks for Tennessee Records with the Derricks Singers. Later pastorates in Jackson, Tennessee, and Beloit, Wisconsin, led Derricks to Pleasant Grove Baptist Church in Washington, D.C., where he recruited the now famous Richard Smallwood (b. 1948) playing the Hammond B3 organ in 1963 at fourteen years of age. Rev. Derricks returned to Nashville in ill health, where he licensed his songs with Canaanland Music to help pay for medical bills. His earlier arrangement with Stamps-Baxter resulted in only a one-time $5 payment for “Just a Little Talk with Jesus” (Fenner, 2021).
The late United Methodist homiletics professor William B. McClain notes that Black musicians freely “borrowed” musical and lyrical ideas from existing songs in accordance with their immersion in an oral tradition. In McClain’s words, “The dictum was: One was free to borrow as long as the revision made the borrowed music better” (McClain, 1990, p. 78, emphasis in original). An analysis of “Just a Little Talk with Jesus” reveals that Derricks followed this rule to a tee. In fact, the earliest lyrical evidence for including “a little talk with Jesus” comes from an 1893 hymnal titled Our Praise in Song (Fenner, 2022). The author remains anonymous, but the song is nestled amidst other songs likely emerging from nineteenth-century revival meetings.
These early gospel songs fall more within the category of “White gospel” than “Black gospel.” Although there is a definite overlap between the two genres, White gospel songs are notable for their simple harmonies, accessible refrains, and emphasis on an individual’s conversion to faith (Morgan, 2019, pp. 73–74). All these elements are identifiable in “A Little Talk,” as the song was first dubbed, but they increasingly blend with Black gospel characteristics in subsequent developments of the text and tune. For instance, by 1902, “A Little Talk” appeared as “A Little Talk with Jesus” in a 1902 collection called New Jubilee Songs, reflecting its appearance in the repertoire of the Fisk Jubilee Singers. Whereas Our Praise in Song resulted from the editorial work of White men, Fisk University’s John W. Work II (1848?–1923) compiled songs of the Black tradition in New Jubilee Songs (Fenner, 2022). Again, no author receives credit for “A Little Talk with Jesus” in this turn-of-the-century work, but Derricks was responsible for the more substantial revision of the text (especially the stanzas) and the music (especially the refrain) in the 1930s.
In Derricks’ hands, “Just a Little Talk with Jesus” conveys eschatological hope in indisputable terms. Compared to mentions of “relief” and “victory” in earlier versions, Derricks used heavenly references in each stanza, ranging from “heaven” to “above” to “starry skies.” Consistent with other Black gospel songs and spirituals, the lyrics shift attention from earthly concerns to the anticipation of eternal life with God. McClain notes that gospel songs express a distinctive concern about the intersection of religion and realism (McClain, 1990, p. 77). The challenges of everyday life are noted in Black worship through gospel songs like “Just a Little Talk with Jesus,” and such songs also offer an escape from those challenges. Through the repeated assurance that “just a little talk with Jesus makes it right,” Derricks trivializes worldly cares so that they exert less control over an individual’s mind (Discipleship Ministries, 2011). The “little prayer wheel turning” is not a Buddhist reference but a simple device in some Christian communities, including evangelicals and Pentecostals, to a series of prayer practices that focus the mind and spirit of Christians and encourage them to “pray without ceasing” (I Thess 5:17). The refrain shifts the point of view from the individual in the stanzas to communal language in the refrain. These textual considerations account for the song’s appearance in the “Faith, Trust, Love” subsection of the larger section titled “The Gospel in the Christian Life” in One Lord, One Faith, One Baptism (2018). Notably, though, in Worship & Song, the song appears in the “Rebirth and the New Creature” subsection of the “Sanctifying and Perfecting Grace” section, shifting the emphasis from conversion to the process of perfecting grace (2011).
As with most songs, there is no singular interpretation of “Just a Little Talk with Jesus,” especially when the text readily migrates from one context to another. Far from finding a permanent home in either White or Black communities, the song contributes as much to “a regional expression of spirituality that comes out of the White working-class culture of the South,” especially after Elvis Presley recorded the song at Sun Studios in 1956. It broadens its religious identity among Black Christians in an ecumenical sense through its appearance in hymnals like African American Heritage Hymnal (2001), Zion Still Sings (2007), and Lead Me, Guide Me (1987) (Wilson, 2006, p. 76).
Musically, “Just a Little Talk with Jesus” uses gospel music characteristics of both Black and White traditions. It features an accessible refrain with repetitive language, including a series of bass notes that climb into a “sixteenth-note motive [that] becomes a hallmark of this song” (Discipleship Ministries, 2011). In contrast to the earlier versions from which Derricks took his cue, his own song incorporates numerous “altered scale degrees,” forming secondary chords that infuse it with a Black gospel feel (Abbington, 2013, p. 75). Most of the secondary chords are dominant sevenths, but augmented, diminished, and minor seventh chords also appear, and they become increasingly frequent toward the final cadence at the end of the refrain. The refrain concludes with the same melody and chord progression found at the end of each stanza; however, in Harbor Bells No. 6 as well as One Lord, One Faith, One Baptism and other African American hymnals, the refrain moves from the tonic to a IV7 chord instead of the anticipated plagal cadence. By lowering the third of the chord instead of raising it by a semitone, creating a “blue note,” this final cadence “relaxes” into something reminiscent of jazz and blues (McClain, 1990, p. 78). Again, there is no singular interpretation of this harmonic move. It might suggest that the singer is likewise relaxing into the assurance of God’s eschatological reign. On the other hand, by making a brief reference to a genre known for expressing hardship through music, the final cadence might serve as a latent reminder that everyday challenges remain constant even through our efforts to dispel their effects. Perhaps the best interpretations combine these two ideas.
Although Derricks made no attempt to record himself singing “Just a Little Talk with Jesus” before the 1960s, the song nevertheless became popular in earlier decades because of its initial publication in Harbor Bells No. 6 and subsequent performances by gospel quartets (Wolfe 2005, 100). Harbor Bells No. 6 stands alongside numerous other efforts of the Stamps-Baxter Music and Printing Company to promote and improve congregational singing in local churches. Based in Dallas, Texas, under the leadership of Southern gospel song publishers Virgil Oliver Stamps (1892–1940) and Jesse Randall Baxter (1897–1960), Stamps-Baxter produced “convention books” to add to the repertoire of “singing schools” in the South (Fresne, 2008, p. 23). For upward of forty years, Stamps-Baxter annually released two to three convention books. Each one compiled 140 songs in four-part harmonies and shape-note notation (Fresne, 2008, p. 24). Since the company proposed to teach laypeople to sing, the songs shared a similar structure and characteristics. For instance, each song consisted of three stanzas set to music in a gospel style. Given that he spent his early life and some of his adulthood in Chattanooga, one of the cities most influenced by a singing school, it was perhaps inevitable that Derricks would intersect with Stamps-Baxter. In fact, he worked for the Stamps-Baxter office for a time, granting him opportunities to publish songs with them (Wolfe, 2005, p. 100). Despite his reluctance to record “Just a Little Talk with Jesus” until late in his life, its appearance in a convention songbook ensured that it would become widely known in the 1930s and retain its good standing in future decades.
Although more recent instances of “Just a Little Talk with Jesus” no longer retain the shape-note style of earlier editions, it is still most common to see three stanzas and a refrain set to gospel-sounding harmonies. In fact, a comparison of “Just a Little Talk with Jesus” in hymnals from 2001 to 2018 reveals that the song undergoes little to no revision. With the exception of its appearance in The New National Baptist Hymnal (2001), where the IV7 chord in the final measure is replaced with a IV chord to form a plagal cadence, it seems that “Just a Little Talk with Jesus” is no longer subject to development. Evidently, Derricks moved beyond “ma[king] the borrowed music better” to contributing a song that now stands as the best of its kind (McClain, 1990, p. 78).
“Just a Little Talk with Jesus” stood among the staple gospel songs of White male quartets for decades. Most of the premier ensembles recorded it, including The Blackwood Brothers in this 1976 LP recording: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WeKLyJk6r1g. Note the solo bass voice on the refrain, a feature of many of the quartet renditions. Contrast this recording with the close harmonies of Jehovah Shalom A Capella, a Ugandan male sextet, in their Christ in Hymns II Album (2021): https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LlGXmAggHWQ&t=15s. Finally, Bill and Gloria Gaither assembled a larger group of Black and White gospel luminaries in their studio in Alexandria, Indiana, in 1995 to make a recording that featured the deep bass of Blackwood Brothers legend J.D. Summer (1924–1998) at one end of the male vocal spectrum and Fairfield Four first tenor Larry Ford (b. 1935) on the other end: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Bm4mT3Ocelw.
Chris Fenner, “Cleavant Derricks,” Hymnology Archive (posted July 9, 2021),
https://www.hymnologyarchive.com/cleavant-derricks (accessed September 4, 2023).
_____, “Just a Little Talk with Jesus,” Hymnology Archive (posted February 22, 2022),
https://www.hymnologyarchive.com/just-a-little-talk-with-jesus (accessed September 4, 2023).
Jeannette Fresne, “History of the Stamps Baxter Singing Schools and Normal School of Music,” Journal of Historical Research in Music Education 3, no. 1 (October 2008), 21–38.
“Just a Little Talk with Jesus,” Discipleship Ministries (posted August 15, 2011), https://www.umcdiscipleship.org/resources/just-a-little-talk-with-jesus (accessed September 4, 2023).
William B. McClain, Come Sunday: The Liturgy of Zion (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1990).
Robert J. Morgan, “American Gospel Song Movement” in Hymns and Hymnody: Historical and Theological Introductions, ed. Mark A. Lamport, Benjamin K. Forrest, and Vernon M. Whaley, vol. 3, From the English West to the Global South (Eugene: Cascade Books, 2019), 65–79.
Charles Reagan Wilson, “‘Just a Little Talk with Jesus’: Elvis Presley, Religious Music, and Southern Spirituality,” Southern Cultures 12, no. 4 (Winter 2006): 74–91.
Charles K. Wolfe, “Derricks, Cleavant,” in Encyclopedia of American Gospel Music, ed. W. K. McNeil (New York, NY: Routledge, 2005), 100.
Mykayla Turner holds a Master of Sacred Music with a Liturgical Musicology concentration. She recently obtained her A.C.C.M. in Piano Performance from Conservatory Canada, and she is currently completing a Master of Theological Studies. Mykayla has presented research at conferences in the United States, Canada, and the United Kingdom. Apart from her academic work, she is an active church musician and liturgist. She works as a worship coordinator for a Mennonite congregation in rural Ontario.