History of Hymns: 'Total Praise'
By Michael Jordan
(“Lord, I will lift mine eyes to the hills”)
by Richard Smallwood
Africana Hymnal, 4021
I will lift up mine eyes unto the hills, from whence cometh my help.
My help cometh from the Lord, which made heaven and earth. (Psalm 121:1–2, KJV)
And he arose and rebuked the wind, and said to the sea, “Peace, be still!” And the wind ceased and there was a great calm. (Mark 4:39, KJV)
You are my strength, I watch for you; you, God, are my fortress, my God on whom I can rely. (Psalm 59:9–10, NIV)
Thus will I bless thee while I live: I will lift up my hands in thy name. (Psalm 63:4, KJV)
Few hymns have assumed such an iconic status in the hearts of the African American worshiping community in such a brief time as Richard Smallwood’s “Total Praise.” Smallwood skillfully paraphrases several passages of scripture, amplifying their meaning with an inspiring musical setting. This essay summarizes the life of Richard Smallwood, the circumstances surrounding the song’s origins, and an analysis of its text and music.
Richard Smallwood was born on November 30, 1948 to Mabel Ruth Locklear and Chester Lee Smallwood in Atlanta, Georgia. His family and congregation observed and nurtured his musical gifts throughout his childhood. During his formative years, Richard honed his skills while leading music at Whitestone Baptist Church where his father was the pastor. He established the Richard Smallwood Singers at age eleven, served as accompanist for his junior high and high school choirs, and provided accompaniment for his school music classes. At age fourteen, he assumed a salaried position as Hammond organist at Pleasant Grove Baptist Church.
Richard continued his musical education at Howard University (B.M., 1971) where he majored in piano and minored in voice. He credits the Howard University experience with forming him into the mature artist that congregations and audiences have come to respect and revere today. Richard debuted his first official composition, an arrangement of “The Lord’s Prayer” (1971) at Howard University. He returned to Howard to obtain his master’s degree in piano and ethnomusicology in 1975 and, more than two decades later, matriculated in the Howard Divinity School (1999). His years at Howard University helped him discover who he was and marked the beginning of who he was to become.
Richard became a member of Washington, D.C.’s Metropolitan Baptist Church on Sunday, October 25, 1987. Shortly after, he joined the music ministry staff at the church, where he faithfully served. In addition to the in-depth preaching of Dr. H. Beecher Hicks Jr., Metropolitan’s worship culture appealed to Richard’s broad range of musical styles. Dr. Braxton Shelley recalled Smallwood’s comments, “I pride myself in terms of Metropolitan’s musical divers[ity]. I love anthems; I love hymns; I love gospel . . . you should be able to do it all” (Abbington, 2014, p. 399). Richard Smallwood is now a world-renowned, multi-award-winning gospel composer, arranger, and pianist. For half a century, he has been fortifying and resourcing the sung faith of congregations.
“Total Praise” was born out of the anguish of caring for his ailing mother, terminally ill godbrother, and the emotional issues of his foster brother. He confessed in his autobiography, “I felt helpless as I watched my loved ones suffering. I wanted to write a ‘pity party’ song . . . I wanted to develop it musically into a song that asked for God’s help. However, the more I worked on it, the more it kept going in the direction of a praise song” (Smallwood, 2019, p. 368).
The text is based in Psalm 121, a prayer of David, extolling God as Helper. This psalm is one of fifteen “psalms of ascent” sung as the Jewish people traveled upward from surrounding cities to Jerusalem. The melody of “Total Praise” magnifies the movement of the psalm in the ascending arc of its line. Smallwood aligns his lyrical point of view to that of this psalm. “Total Praise” debuted on Richard’s Adoration—Live in Atlanta album (1996). This recording opens with Mervyn Warren’s classically flavored overture string arrangement, as Richard begins to play the two-bar quarter note figure and Vision sings, “Lord, I will lift” (Smallwood, 2019, p. 373).
The opening two lines of Smallwood’s text comes from the perspective of the first-person singular, confessing the deity of God. The hills (where God is located) are where refuge, provision, and care resides (Psalm 121:1–2). Richard has mentioned in various workshops and seminars how intentional he was about structuring the ascending melodic line and accompanying harmonies of the opening two lines as a form of word painting. He also clarifies that the ascending motion that occurs on the lyric “hills” was also intentional—where the tenors are singing a sustained B♭ as the sopranos and altos are resolving to make the overall chord an e♭ minor chord. Line three of the stanza continues into lines one and two of the chorus, addressing God directly in the second person. These lyrics affirm the nature and character of God (Psalm 121:3–8), clarifying the confession of lines one and two of the stanza. The final line of the chorus returns to the first person, engaging with God in surrender, agreement, and gratitude. The use of first-person is a personal declaration and confession that becomes a congregational proclamation and profession. The composer employs parallel harmonies in the choral setting, allowing all parts to participate in the ascending line. Finally, the polyphonic and imitative texture of the closing “Amens” gives each voice part the opportunity to offer a melodically inverted, climatic confirmation to their confessions.
Stephen F. Key provides the standard arrangement of the vocal parts for this hymn in collections in 1996. An active musician, he has appeared in Broadway productions and performed with and arranged music for Yolanda Adams, Edwin Hawkins, Walter Hawkins, and many others. He is a music publisher and owner of StepKey Music, and he serves on the musical staffs of the Third Street Church of God and Asbury United Methodist Church, both in Washington, D.C. Congregational collections contain numerous arrangements of hymns (Key, StepKey Music, n.d.).
Destiny’s Child recorded a portion of “Total Praise” on their Survivor (2001) album. Chrisette Michelle included the song on her mixtape in preparation for the release of the Let Freedom Reign (2010) album. Fantasia and Patti Labelle added “Total Praise” to their live performances. “Total Praise” has also served as a comfort and strength during devastating events in our world. The hymn was rendered at the funeral of six-year-old Ana Grace Márquez-Greene, who was murdered on December 14, 2012, at Sandy Hook Elementary in Connecticut. Gospel Recording Artist Gaye Arbuckle sang “Total Praise” in July 2016 for the Interfaith Memorial for officers who were killed in Dallas, Texas. “Total Praise” was also one of the songs that opened the funeral of Aretha Franklin (1942–2018). The song was sung at the beginning of the funeral for Smallwood’s mother as they closed her casket.
While “Total Praise” originated as a choral composition, it now appears in leading Protestant and Catholic African American hymnals, including the African American Heritage Hymnal (2001), The New National Baptist Hymnal (21st Century Edition) (2001), and Lead Me, Guide Me (2012). The title of the song became the name of the hymnal Total Praise (2011), an indication of the esteem this hymn holds in the African American community. The hymn now appears more broadly in hymnals such as Lift Up Your Hearts (2013), Voices Together (2020), and the bilingual Santo, Santo, Santo / Holy, Holy, Holy (2019).
Though this song was composed more than two decades ago, it remains relevant in the current climate of our world and the world to come. “Total Praise” provides words to pray when we are speechless and a posture of praise when we would otherwise feel hopeless. It channels the immanence and transcendence of God in our circumstance as we sing it in congregational worship. By the time we reach the “Amen,” we are renewed by God’s promises to us.
James Abbington, Readings in African American Church Music and Worship, Vol. 2
(Chicago, IL: GIA Publications, Inc., 2014).
K. L. Alexander, “Millions of Gospel Fans Know Richard Smallwood’s Music. But Not His
Struggles, July 23, 2015, Washington Post, https://www.washingtonpost.com/lifestyle/magazine/the-richard-smallwood-you-know-4-doves-10-stellars-8-grammy-noms/2015/07/22/553d5cfc-0a28-11e5-9e39-0db921c47b93_story.html (accessed November 1, 2020).
Cheryl Jackson, “Gaye Arbuckle Sings ‘Total Praise’ at the Interfaith Memorial for Officers Who Were Killed in Dallas,” (July 02, 2019), The Cheryl Jackson Show, https://praisedc.com/1791831/gaye-arbuckle-sings-total-praise-at-the-interfaith-memorial-for-officers-who-were-killed-in-dallas (accessed November 1, 2020).
Stephen F. Key, StepKey Music, https://www.stepkeymusic.com/about (accessed February 13, 2021).
Teresa L. Reed, “Richard Smallwood.” The Canterbury Dictionary of Hymnology. Canterbury Press, http://www.hymnology.co.uk.proxy.libraries.smu.edu/r/richard-smallwood (accessed January 24, 2021).
Richard Smallwood, Total Praise: The Autobiography (Newark, NJ: Godzchild Publications, 2019).
Sherman Roosevelt Tribble, ed. Total Praise: Songs and Other Worship Resources for Every Generation (Chicago, IL: GIA Publications, Inc., 2011).
“The Psalms of Ascent,” (February 22, 2019), https://www.christrevealed.com/the-psalms-of-ascent/ (accessed February 11, 2020).
Michael Jordan is Minister of Music and Fine Arts at David Chapel Missionary Baptist Church, Austin, Texas. A Virginia native, he is a graduate of Hampton University (BA in Music Education) and Liberty University (MA in Worship Studies). Michael is a candidate for the Doctor of Pastoral Music degree program, Perkins School of Theology, Southern Methodist University, where he studied hymnology with C. Michael Hawn.