History of Hymns: “Fix Me, Jesus”

by Darnell St. Romain

Fix Me, Jesus
African-American Spiritual
The United Methodist Hymnal, No. 655.

Growing up in the south, one often hears the common expression “fix” or “fixing.” The expressions confused me a child. “How do I fix it?” I would ask. As I became older, I understood the expression to mean repair or to make right or to prepare to do something. All these meanings can be used to define the verb “fix” as found in the spiritual “Fix Me Jesus.”

The Reverend Carlton Young, editor of the United Hymnal, cites William B. McClain, who has provided a commentary on this spiritual:

Black folks have always had a sense of being chosen people of God; and have always been confident that they would, individually and collectively, spend eternity in heaven… “Fix Me, Jesus” expresses the earnest desire of slaves to be fit for their ultimate destination.  (Carlton R. Young, Companion to the United Methodist Hymnal, Abingdon Press, 1993, 336, citing William B. McClain, Come Sunday, The Liturgy of Zion. Abingdon Press, 1990, 106)

This spiritual begins with the refrain, followed by two stanzas. The stanzas are in a call and response pattern typical of most spirituals. The congregational response “fix me, Jesus, fix me” is sometimes referred to as a “tag line.” This technique makes use of repetition to supply interest and cohesion.  The refrain is a plea to Jesus to repair one’s soul: “Oh, fix me.” I am reminded of the biblical narrative in Mark 1:40-45 (NRSV). A leper asks Jesus to heal him:

“If you choose, you can make me clean.” Moved with pity, Jesus stretched out his hand and touched him, and said to him, “I do choose. Be made clean!” Immediately the leprosy left him, and he was made clean.

William Farley Smith, who arranged the setting of “Fix Me, Jesus” in The United Methodist Hymnal, suggests  that the glides [Oh] should be performed as “moaning prayers” (Young, 336). “Fix me” is a cry to Jesus for healing.

Richard Newman in his collection of spirituals, Go Down, Moses: Celebrating the African-American Spiritual, provides this variant refrain:

O, fix me, Jesus, fix me right.
Fix me right, fix me right;
O, fix me, Jesus, fix me right,
Fix me so I can stand.

Newman offers this insight: “‘Fix Me, Jesus’ is a powerful African-American image, both poetically and religiously. However oppressed and cast down, the slaves sang songs of faith, confident that Jesus could ‘fix me so I can stand’” (Newman, 41)

In both stanzas, the underlining tone is eschatological—dealing with the end times or death. Stanza one calls to mind the narrative of the multitude from every nation found in Revelation 7:9-14. William Farley Smith notes: “salve-poets long for elevation to saintly status replete with ‘white’ tribulation robes that have been ‘washed in the blood of the lamb’” (Diana Sanchez, editor, The Hymns of The United Methodist Hymnal. Abingdon Press, 1989, 221) Stanza two speaks of the “journey home” and “my dying bed.” Even in dying, one must have faith in Jesus.

The theology of this spiritual is probably derived from personal experiences of religion that were common to the slaves. Jesus is a personal deliverer, both physically and spiritually, who understands the struggle of the slave. Jesus is able to offer the final triumph over adversity, which is eternal life in Heaven.

Smith suggests that the refrain should be performed as a moaning prayer. This suggestion leads to the question: “How is a spiritual performed?” Scholar Willis Laurence James, in his study Stars in De Elements, offers some suggestions about how to give an authentic rendition of the spiritual. James’s approach is to treat the spiritual as a folk song rather than a concert piece. He writes:

Listen to real folk singers as much as possible. Note their virtues instead of their vices. Go beneath the surface and listen to the melody and words. Do not try to imitate their singing; imitate their spirit and their principles, rhythm, tone color, and spontaneity (James, 145).

Rosephanye Dunn-Powell offers some advice on performance practice in her article “The African-American Spiritual: Preparation and Performance Considerations” in The Journal of Singing. Powell’s best advice is seek to express the “depth of emotion and meaning of the spiritual.” To illustrate her point, Powell cites James Weldon Johnson from his work, The Books of American Negro Spirituals:

…To feel them it is necessary to know the truth about their origin and history, to get in touch with the association of ideas that surround them, and to realize something of what they have meant in the experiences of the people who created them. In a word, the capacity to feel the songs while singing them is more important than any amount of mere artistic technique. Singers who take the Spirituals as mere “art” songs and singers who make of them an exhibition of what is merely amusing or exotic are equally doomed to failure, so far as true interpretation is concerned (Johnson, 29).

James and Powell both emphasize that it is the spirit and emotion of the spiritual that must be conveyed to render an authentic performance.

Sister Thea Bowman, F.S.P.A (Franciscan Sisters of Perpetual Adoration),  Ph.D.,  notes: “The music comes from a people who share and claim a common history, common experience, common oppression, common values, hopes, dreams and visions” (Sister Thea Bowman, “The Gift of African American Sacred Song”).

While the texts are written using the first person pronoun, the “me” reference in “Fix Me Jesus” is communal. The individual sings the soul of the community. In heart and voice, the congregation responds. The leader of the song is chosen from the people by the people to suit their immediate need.

This spiritual is found in The United Methodist Hymnal in the section “Funeral and Memorial Service.” “Fix Me, Jesus” is most appropriate for a funeral. In the book Come Sunday: The Liturgy of Zion, McClain notes: “The somber, reverent, almost pleading melody has made it a favorite for devotional services, testimony service, altar call, and invitational selections.” (McClain, 106).

In 1960, Alvin Ailey featured “Fix Me, Jesus” in his signature dance drama Revelations. The music for the entire ballet is composed of African-American religious music, including other well-known spirituals such as “Wade in the Water,” “Didn’t My Lord Deliver Daniel,” and “I Want to Be Ready.”

More recently, “Fix Me, Jesus” was included on the soundtrack of Joyful Noise, released by Warner Bros., featuring Queen Latifah.

 

 

 

Darnell St. Romain

About this week’s writer:

Darnell St. Romain is the Associate Director of Liturgical Music at Prince of Peace Catholic Community in Plano, Texas. He serves as Treasurer for the Dallas Chapter of the National Association of Pastoral Musicians (NPM).

 

This article is provided as a collaboration between Discipleship Ministries and The Hymn Society in the U.S. and Canada. For more information about The Hymn Society, visit thehymnsociety.org.

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Categories: History of Hymns, Hymnals By Name, The United Methodist Hymnal, Worship, Worship Planning, Civil Observances, Black History Month, Black History Month, Music Resources

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