Home Worship Planning History of Hymns History of Hymns: 'My Lord, What a Morning'

History of Hymns: 'My Lord, What a Morning'

By C. Michael Hawn

“My Lord, What a Morning”
African American Spiritual
The United Methodist Hymnal, 719

My Lord, what a morning;
my Lord, what a morning;
Oh, my Lord, what a morning,
when the stars begin to fall.

1. You’ll hear the trumpet sound,
to wake the nations underground,
looking to my God’s right hand,
when the stars begin to fall.

2. You’ll hear the sinner moan . . .

3. You’ll hear the Christian shout . . .

These few words conjure up powerful apocalyptic images, both visually (“stars begin to fall”) and aurally (“trumpet . . . sound,” “sinner moan,” and “Christian shout”). What are the possible origins of this spiritual, and how did it come to be a part of the African American repertoire?

Scholars have subjected the origins of African American spirituals to considerable speculation. Traditional hymnology places stress on a particular author or composer as the point of origin. Eileen Southern (1920–2002), a pioneering musicologist in African American music, offers further origin classifications. She examines the background of spirituals in three areas: “the time of origin, the place of origin, and the manner of origin” (Southern, 1972, p. 8). For traditional hymnological scholarship, this is a helpful clarification.

Southern credits A Collection of Spiritual Songs and Hymns Selected from Various Authors (Philadelphia, 1801) by Richard Allen (1760–1831) for the inspiration behind this spiritual. Allen was the first bishop of the African Methodist Episcopal Church, the first independent African American denomination. He observed that African Americans in Philadelphia were creating a category of congregational songs beyond those composed by the traditional British hymnodists of the day, especially eighteenth-century hymnwriters John Newton, Isaac Watts, and Charles Wesley. This collection may be the first one to distinguish between hymns and spiritual songs in the African American context (Southern, 1972, p. 12). These “spiritual songs”—later spirituals—often employed call-response forms of performance and incorporated refrains. They found a voice in independent black churches and camp meetings, though never appearing in printed collections.

While many spirituals may have been conceived on plantations in the southern United States, Southern contends that free African Americans also composed them “in the independent black congregations of the North, where black congregations, freed from the supervision of white clergymen, could conduct their religious services as they wished” (Southern, 1972, p. 11). “My Lord, What a Morning” appears to have been one of those composed in the North.

Allen’s collection contains an unattributed hymn (No. 10), perhaps composed by Allen, that probably inspired this spiritual. The collection indicated no tunes. Stanzas 1 and 4 follow:

Behold the awful trumpet sounds,
The sleeping dead to raise,
And calls the nations under ground;
O how the saints will praise!

The falling stars their orbits leave,
The sun in darkness hide;
The elements asunder cleave,
The moon turn’d into blood.

The numerous apocalyptic images in this hymn have scriptural foundations. Note, for example, the symbolic “trumpet”: 1 Corinthians 15:52, “In a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trump: for the trumpet shall sound, and the dead shall be raised incorruptible, and we shall be changed” (KJV, emphasis added.) A companion text is I Thessalonians 4:16-17: “For the Lord himself shall descend from heaven with a shout, with the voice of the archangel, and with the trump of God: and the dead in Christ shall rise first: Then we which are alive and remain shall be caught up together with them in the clouds, to meet the Lord in the air: and so shall we ever be with the Lord” (KJV, emphasis added).

“The falling stars” is a particularly powerful metaphor. Revelation 6:12-14 provides a stark description of the end of the world: “And I beheld when he had opened the sixth seal, and, lo, there was a great earthquake; and the sun became black as sackcloth of hair, and the moon became as blood; And the stars of heaven fell unto the earth, even as a fig tree casteth her untimely figs, when she is shaken of a mighty wind. And the heaven departed as a scroll when it is rolled together; and every mountain and island were moved out of their places” (KJV, emphasis added).

The anonymous hymn and the spiritual share these primary images. Another prominent image is the reference, “nations underground,” a vision of global humanity on earth, under the ground of heaven, viewed from the perspective of heaven, the source of the trumpet’s sound.

A version of this hymn appears in Slave Songs of the United States (1867) as “Stars Begin to Fall” (no. 34), the first authoritative collection of this repertoire published after the Civil War. Thus, the date of this spiritual would be between Allen’s collection in 1801 and the publication of Slave Songs in 1867. We can safely conclude that this was an antebellum spiritual that most likely had its origins in Philadelphia or, at least, the North. The song, or a version of it, spread throughout the South, as evidenced by its inclusion in Slave Songs, a compilation of songs collected off the South Carolina coast during the Civil War. African Methodist Episcopal congregations existed in the South, notably in Charleston, South Carolina. These conclusions address Southern’s time and place of origin, at least, to some degree.

What about Southern’s “manner of origin”? The compositional process reveals the difference between hymns and spiritual songs. The hymn, “Before the Awful Trumpet Sounds” was most likely the work of a single author, even if anonymous. Contrasting with hymns of personal origin, Southern cites Philadelphia Methodist pastor John Fanning Watson’s 1819 account published in his Annals of Philadelphia (1830) and provided here with Southern’s explanation:

An analysis of a representative number of spirituals reveals the compositional procedures employed. The anonymous folk composers selected verses from the Bible or verses from favorite Protestant hymns and added to these poetic materials verses of their own invention and refrains and choruses. . . Methodist churchman John Watson testifies to such procedures in his book: “In the blacks’ quarter (at camp meetings), the coloured people get together, and sing for hours together, short scraps of disjointed affirmations, pledges, or prayers, lengthened out with long repetitions choruses . . . Some of these [tunes] from their nature (having very long repetition choruses and short scraps of matter), are actually composed as sung, and are indeed almost endless” (Southern, 1972, p. 12).

Watson, accustomed to the conventional forms of classic hymnody arranged in consistent metrical stanzas, found this practice to be “a growing evil” perpetrated by “the illiterate blacks of the society” (quoted in Southern, 1972, p. 11). Despite Watson's prejudice, his description reveals a creative, communal oral compositional process. This process ascribes compositional agency to a given community rather than to an individual. Furthermore, the refrain or bits of the spiritual created in one community may have been subject to a similar process in other communities, resulting in variations. Thus, the version contained in Slave Songs, songs collected from islands off the coast of South Carolina, varies musically and textually from the standard version in hymnals today, though still recognizable.

Carlton R. Young notes that African American composer William Farley Smith (1941–1997), arranger of most of the spirituals in The United Methodist Hymnal, ascribed the tune name BURLEIGH to this spiritual after Harry T. Burleigh (1866–1949) whose concert versions of African American spirituals helped bring the genre into mainstream performances (Young, 1993, 490). Most recent hymnals use this tune name.

“Morning” or “Mourning”

The accepted spelling of these homonyms in most hymnals today is “morning.” A case can be made either way, however. Matthew 24:29-31, an apparent scriptural source for the spiritual, offers a defense for “mourning”:

Immediately after the tribulation of those days shall the sun be darkened, and the moon shall not give her light, and the stars shall fall from heaven, and the powers of the heavens shall be shaken: And then shall appear the sign of the Son of man in heaven: and then shall all the tribes of the earth mourn, and they shall see the Son of man coming in the clouds of heaven with power and great glory. And he shall send his angels with a great sound of a trumpet, and they shall gather together his elect from the four winds, from one end of heaven to the other (KJV, emphasis added).

Mark’s shortened account (13:25-27) does not mention either term. Amos 8:9-10 supports Matthew’s account: “And it shall come to pass in that day, saith the Lord God, that I will cause the sun to go down at noon, and I will darken the earth in the clear day: And I will turn your feasts into mourning, and all your songs into lamentation; and I will bring up sackcloth upon all loins, and baldness upon every head; and I will make it as the mourning of an only son, and the end thereof as a bitter day.” On the other hand, Job 38:7 indicates that “the morning stars sang together” (KJV).

Historically, Slave Songs (1867) chooses “mournin’.” The first published version in the form commonly used today first appeared in Cabin and Plantation Songs as Sung by the Hampton Students (New York, 1874) by Thomas P. Fenner. This collection uses “morning.” Just a year later, J.B.T. Marsh’s The Story of the [Fisk] Jubilee Singers with Their Songs (London, 1875; Boston, 1881) reads “mourning.” Acclaimed African American poet James Weldon Johnson (1871–1938) chose “mornin,’” stating that “The title of this song has at times been erroneously printed ‘My Lord, What a Mourning’” (Johnson, 1925-26, p. 162-63). However, John W. Work’s American Negro Songs and Spirituals (New York, 1940) returns to “My Lord What a Mourning” (p. 92).

Given the oral/aural communal compositional process described earlier, the original singers who learned the song without a printed text may have embraced this homophonous coincidence. Indeed, Carl Daw Jr. astutely notes that Fenner’s and Marsh’s collections, published a year apart, “provide valuable evidence that this text seems always to have been attended by a dual understanding of that homonym at the fifth word . . . Ultimately, the two spellings describe different sides of the same coin” (Daw, 2016, p. 358).

Further Adaptations and Uses of the Spiritual

Numerous variations of the spiritual exist. One unusual version appeared as “When the Stars Begin to Fall” in several convention and revival collections in the late nineteenth and first three decades of the twentieth century. This version appears to be textually adapted and musically arranged for the apocalyptic themes of revival services of this era.

When the stars begin to fall 72px

Folk singer and activist Joan Baez (b. 1941) adapted the text as a protest song in her album Joan Baez in Concert (1962). During the escalation of the Viet Nam War and the social unrest of the 1960s, some of the words took on a new meaning. For example, “the nations underground” may have signified “underground” protest movements, though the most famous of these, the Weather Underground Organization (the Weathermen), was not organized until 1969. The use of the spiritual with some adaptations would have been in the long-standing tradition of musicians and other artists who use existing material to send coded messages about current circumstances. Her second stanza begins, “Oh, you will see my Jesus come / his glory shining like the sun.” The third stanza is more direct in its message of protest, “Oh, you will hear all Christians shout / ‘Cause there’s a new day come about.” (See https://lyrics.fandom.com/wiki/Joan_Baez:My_Lord_What_A_Morning.)

The spiritual became the title for the autobiography of the celebrated African American contralto and interpreter of spirituals, Marian Anderson (1897–1993), My Lord, What a Morning: An Autobiography (1956). Her rendition is available here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mJoDR704-BA.

Jamaican-American singer and actor Harry Belefonte (b. 1927) offered an additional interpretation on his recording My Lord What a Mornin’ (1959). His performance is available at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=izk0yPjX814.

A Word for Today?

Theologically, African American theologian and Civil Rights leader Howard Thurman (1899–1981) indicates that this spiritual portrays “the judgment [that] is personal and cosmic so that even the rocks and the mountains, the stars, the sea, are all involved in so profound a process” (Thurman, 1975, p. 129; italics in original). W.E.B. DuBois (1868–1963), author of The Souls of Black Folk (1903), comments on this genre of text in the book’s final chapter, “Of the Sorrow Songs”:

Through all the sorrow of the Sorrow Songs there breathes a hope—a faith in the ultimate justice of things. The minor cadences or despair change often to triumph and calm confidence. Sometimes it is faith in life, sometimes a faith in death, sometimes assurance of boundless justice in some fair world beyond. But whichever it is, the meaning is always clear: that sometime, somewhere, [people] will judge [people] by their souls and not by their skins. Is such a hope justified? Do the Sorrow Songs sing true? (DuBois, 1961, p. 189).

Postscript

This essay was written in the early summer of 2020 during the convergence of two great pandemics of our time—COVID-19 and racism. One can quickly draw apocalyptic parallels between the chaos and calamity of 2020 and this spiritual. DuBois’ words, over a century old, are a condemnation that the United States has made little progress. At the same time, DuBois, anticipating the spirit of Martin Luther King Jr., offers a word of hope echoed in King's paraphrase of an 1853 sermon by Theodore Parker, an abolitionist minister. King’s famous version of Parker's statement follows: “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” (See https://www.huffpost.com/entry/opinion-smith-obama-king_n_5a5903e0e4b04f3c55a252a4). Thus, we continue to sing “My Lord, What a Morning/Mourning” and “There Is a Balm in Gilead.”

SOURCES

William Francis Allen, Charles Pickard Ware, and Lucy McKim Garrison, Slave Songs of the United States (New York: Simpson & Co., 1867).

W.E.B. DuBois, The Souls of Black Folk: Essays and Sketches (New York: Fawcett Publications Inc., 1961; originally published in 1903).

Carl P. Daw Jr., Glory to God: A Companion (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2016).

James Weldon Johnson and J. Rosamond Johnson, The Books of American Negro Spirituals (New York: The Viking Press, 1925, 1926).

Eileen Southern, “An Origin for the Negro Spiritual,” The Black Scholar [Black Music] 3, no. 10 (Summer 1972), 8-13.

Howard T. Thurman, Deep River and the Negro Spiritual Speaks of Life and Death (Richmond, Indiana: Friends Press, 1975; originally published 1945).

Paul Westermeyer, Hymnal Companion: Evangelical Lutheran Worship (Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress, 2010).

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

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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