Home Worship Planning History of Hymns History of Hymns: 'Rise Up, Shepherd, and Follow'

History of Hymns: 'Rise Up, Shepherd, and Follow'

By C. Michael Hawn

“Rise Up, Shepherd, and Follow” (“There’s a Star in the East”)
African American spiritual
The Faith We Sing, 2096

There’s a star in the East on Christmas morn;
Rise up, shepherd and follow;
It will lead to the place where the Christ was born;
Rise up, shepherd, and follow.
Follow, follow, rise up, shepherd, and follow,
Follow the star of Bethlehem.
Rise up, shepherd, and follow.

Noted African American author James Weldon Johnson (1871–1938) mentions the relative paucity of spirituals devoted to Christmas and suggests this was because enslaved Africans seeking liberation preferred to think of Jesus as a powerful king (“Ride on, King Jesus”) rather than a vulnerable infant (Johnson and Johnson, 1926, p. 14).

The celebration of Christmas for enslaved Africans varied from plantation to plantation. Some observed the tradition, while others barely noticed it. Abolitionist Frederick Douglass (1818–1895) described the life of enslaved workers between Christmas and New Year’s Day:

The days between Christmas and New Year’s day are allowed as holidays; and, accordingly, we were not required to perform any labor, more than to feed and take care of the stock. This time we regarded as our own, by the grace of our masters; and we therefore used or abused it nearly as we pleased. Those of us who had families at a distance were generally allowed to spend the whole six days in their society. The staid, sober, thinking and industrious ones of our number would employ themselves in making corn-brooms, mats, horse-collars and baskets; and another class of us would spend the time in hunting opossums, hares, and coons. But by far the larger part engaged in such sports and merriments as playing ball, wrestling, running foot-races, fiddling, dancing, drinking whisky; and this latter mode of spending time was by far the most agreeable to the feelings of our masters (Douglass, 1845, p. 74).

Douglass states that slave masters did allow a change from the normal routine for benefit of their enslaved workers, but also for their own convenience. He concludes that the result of relaxing the rules and encouraging sporting events and the consuming of alcohol was from the perspective of the masters, “the most effective means in the hands of slaveholders in keeping down the spirit of insurrection.” Indeed, abandoning the established holiday practices would lead to an uprising (Douglass, pp. 74–75). Based on this and other accounts, the following antebellum drawing conceals the complexities of enslaved people at Christmastime and the motives of slave holders.

Plantation christmas
“Winter Holidays in the Southern States: Plantation Frolic on Christmas Eve” from Frank Leslie, Illustrated Newspaper (December 26, 1857).

Though the dating of “Rise Up, Shepherd, and Follow” may not be until the Reconstruction Era, the memory of days in bondage would have lingered among the formerly enslaved Africans. The first known publication of “Rise Up, Shepherd, and Follow” was a text-only printing in the body of a short story titled “Christmas-Gifts” by Ruth McEnery Stuart (1849–1917), found in Lippincott’s Monthly Magazine (January-June 1891, 107; Daw, 2016, p. 140). In the story, slaves were participating in a Christmas celebration hosted by their Louisiana plantation owner family. During an entertaining dance, two of the slaves began to sing the spiritual, “Rise Up, Shepherd and Follow.” Stuart was known for her use of dialect, and the spiritual was published in that form (Chris Fenner, 2019, n.p.):

Dey’s a star in de eas’ on Chris’mas morn,
Rise up, shepherd, and foller!
Hit’ll take yer ter de place whar de Saviour’s born,
Rise up, shepherd, and foller!
Ef yer taken good notice ter de angels’ words,
You’ll leave yo’ flocks and leave yo’ herds,
An’ rise up, shepherd, and foller!
Leave yo’ sheep
An’ leave yo’ lamb,
Leave yo’ ewe
And leave yo’ ram,
An’ rise up, shepherd, and foller!

The singers invited the others to join in on the refrain:

Foller, foller, foller, foller,
Rise, O shepherd, rise an’ follow,
Foller de star o’ Bethlehem!

The story continues with this additional stanza that shifts the imperative to “rise” from “shepherd” to “sinner”:

Oh, dat star’s still shinin’ dis Chris’mas day.
Rise, O sinner, an’ foller!
Wid an’ eye o’ faith yo’ c’n see its ray.
Rise, O sinner, an’ foller!
Hit’ll light yo’ way thro’ de fiel’s o’ fros’.
While it leads thro’ de stable ter de shinin’ cross.
Rise, O sinner, an’ foller!
Leave yo’ father,
Leave yo’ mother,
Leave yo’ sister,
Leave yo’ brother,
An rise, O sinner, an’ foller!

Additional stanzas were improvised.

The spiritual’s first appearance with music was in The Southern Workman (January 1902, p. 122), following a letter to the editor by W.B. Davenport of Staunton, Virginia, titled “A Sermon to Farmers,” describing the need to employ African Americans in agriculture. It is not clear if the spiritual in its musical form is related to the previous letter to the editor. The spiritual was disseminated more widely in a songbook titled Religious Folksongs of the Negro as Sung on the Plantations, subtitled Christmas Plantation Song (Fenner, 1909, p. 173). This, as with other similar books, was a collection of Negro spirituals that were first heard and then transcribed as a manuscript for publication. The spirituals were passed down orally on the basis of memory. There is a challenge in notating any kind of folk music, as the same tune may have numerous variations based on who is singing it. The songs may be recognizable and fundamentally the same, but there will be unique interpretations.

Thomas A. Fenner writes in his introduction to Cabin and Plantation Songs as Sung by the Hampton Students that another challenge in transcribing the music was notating the actual pitches and stylistic interpretation. “These tones are variable in pitch, ranging through an entire interval on different occasions, according to the inspiration of the singer.” He continues, “It is of course impossible to explain them in words, and to those who wish to sing them, the best advice is that most useful in learning to pronounce a foreign language: Study all the rules you please; then—go listen to a native” (Fenner, 1874, p. iv; italics in original). There are no correct or incorrect editions; rather, there are endless variations. “Rise Up, Shepherd,” in its first printing (1902), includes an eight-bar refrain. This was expanded to sixteen bars in a 1909 publication with the addition of “Leave yo’ sheep and leave yo’ lambs, / Rise up, Shepherd, an’ foller, / Leave yo’ ewes an’ leave yo’ rams, / Rise up, Shepherd, an’ foller.” The hexatonic (six-tone) scale includes a lowered seventh degree—a common pitch in spirituals, which was later employed in jazz.

Eileen Guenther notes, “by far, the largest number of spirituals is in the call-and-response style, in which a leader sings a line or more of text, and a group responds with a refrain” (Guenther, 2016, p. 31). Even though the Hampton edition provides melody only, with no indication of alternating call-response, it was most likely sung in this manner. Most current hymnals include rubrics for the leader to sing a phrase with the choir and congregation responding, “Rise up, shepherd, and follow.” A refrain for all singers concludes each stanza.

The Luke 2:8–20 account of the shepherds does not mention the star. Thus, the text appears to be a conflation of the journey of the magi who follow the star in the east found in Matthew 2:1–12 with the Lucan narrative.

This spiritual does not begin to appear in denominational hymnals—either African American or mainline collections—until the 1980s during a revival of the spiritual tradition in the USA. The usual second stanza refers to the angel’s song (Luke 2:14). It follows in a revised form of the dialect printed in the earliest versions with music:

If you take good heed to the angel’s words;
rise up, shepherd, and follow;
you’ll forget your flocks, you’ll forget your herds;
rise up, shepherd, and follow.

Most current hymnals maintain a straightforward harmonization that amplifies the simple unison vocal parts in the earliest musical versions.

Carl P. Daw, Jr. notes that most Christmas hymns focus on the adoration of the Christ child. This spiritual, much like “Go Tell It on the Mountain.” is about discipleship (Daw, 2016, p. 141).

Numerous YouTube recordings of choral versions indicate the spiritual’s current popularity. Among the most memorable is Kathleen Battle singing with the Harlem Boys’ Choir: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=itZRfhuRJKA&feature=emb_title. Other renditions include a traditional a cappella arrangement by the King’s Singers (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1blcp9nL5Co&feature=emb_title), and an upbeat a cappella styling sung by the Millikin Men (Millikin University), arranged by Michael Engelhardt (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pCdZKBlzlY4&feature=emb_title).


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

Frederick Douglass, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave (Boston, Anti-Slavery Office, 1845), https://archive.org/details/DKC0109/page/n1/mode/2up (accessed October 20, 2020).

Chris Fenner, “Rise Up, Shepherd, and Follow,” Hymnology Archive (February 2019), https://www.hymnologyarchive.com/rise-up-shepherd-and-follow (accessed October 20, 2020).

Thomas Fenner, “Preface,” Cabin and Plantation Songs as Sung by the Hampton Students (Hampton, VA: The Hampton Normal and Agricultural Institute, 1901). (Preface included from 1874 edition.), https://archive.org/details/cabinplantations00fenn/page/n9/mode/2up (accessed October 20, 2020).

_____, ed., Religious Folksongs of the Negro as Sung on the Plantations, New Edition (Hampton, VA: The Hampton Normal and Agricultural Institute, 1909), 173, https://archive.org/details/religiousfolkson00fenn/page/172/mode/2up (accessed October 20, 2020).

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

James Weldon Johnson and J. Rosamond Johnson, The Book of American Negro Spirituals, Vol. 2 (New York, Viking Press, 1926).

John Lovell, Black Song: The Forge and the Flame (New York: The Macmillan Company, 1972).

Michael McLean, “Christmas on a Slave Plantation,” We’re History: America Then for Americans Now (December 24, 2014), http://werehistory.org/christmas-on-plantation/ (accessed October 23, 2020).

“Rise Up, Shepherd, an’ Foller: A Christmas Plantation Song,” The Southern Workman 31, no. 1 (January 1902): 122, https://babel.hathitrust.org/cgi/pt?id=mdp.39015018053093&view=1up&seq=132 (accessed October 21, 2020).

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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