Home Worship Planning History of Hymns History of Hymns: "He Never Said a Mumbalin’ Word"

History of Hymns: "He Never Said a Mumbalin’ Word"

He Never Said a Mumbalin’ Word
African American Spiritual;
The United Methodist Hymnal, No. 291.

The life of Jesus is one of the most prominent themes of spirituals. Spirituals are sometimes referred to as sorrow songs. In the case of “He Never Said a Mumbalin’ Word,” it truly is a sorrowful song. Unlike most spirituals, there is not a touch of hopeful optimism or a positive affirmation. A quiet, poignant, sorrowful dignity is the expression.

The Rev. Carlton Young, editor of The United Methodist Hymnal, cites William B. McClain, providing a commentary on this spiritual:

The Crucifixion motif dominates the imagination of the slave. James Cone [James H Cone, The Spirituals and the Blues: An Interpretation, New York: Seabury Press 1972, 52] notes that the slaves were “impressed by the Passion because they too had been rejected, beaten, and shot without a chance to say a word in defense of their humanity.” (Carlton R. Young, Companion to the United Methodist Hymnal, Abingdon Press, 1993, 391, citing William B. McClain, Come Sunday, The Liturgy of Zion. Abingdon Press, 1990, 97)

Cone’s writing of the slaves being beaten and rejected comes from his analysis of a variant stanza of this spiritual:

O, they whipped Him up the hill, up the hill, up the hill,
O, they whipped Him up the hill, and He never said a mumbling word,
O, they whipped Him up the hill, and He never said a mumbling word,
He just hung down His head, and He cried. (Cone, 52 – cited in Companion to the United Methodist Hymnal, 392)

Scholar Richard Newman, in Go Down Moses: Celebrating the African-American Spiritual, provides this analysis of the variant stanza: “Not crying out despite the pain during a whipping of thirty or fifty or a hundred lashes was one of the slaves’ methods of holding on to their dignity and demonstrating resistance.” (Newman, 181)

The entire text of “He Never Said a Mumbalin’ Word” narrates the events of the crucifixion scene. Stanza one sets the scene: “They crucified my Lord.” The “my Lord” has the same effect as it does in the first stanza of “Were You There,” placing the singer at the hill of Calvary and actually seeing Jesus on the cross.

Stanzas 2-5 highlight one aspect of the crucifixion:

“They nailed him to the tree.”
“They pierced him in the side.”
“His blood came trickling down.”
“He hung his head and died.”

After each statement, “and he never said a mumbalin’ word” is sung. This repetitive device is very powerful. It allows one to see the suffering of Christ while Christ does not utter one word of complaint. In the biblical account, Christ actually did say a few words. In the Gospel of Mark 15:34, “Jesus cried out with a loud voice, ‘Eloi, Eloi, lema sabachthani?’ which means, ‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?’” With these words, Jesus described his emotional, psychological, and physical suffering. The slaves had no problem understanding this type of abandonment. Slaves sang this song because it is about Jesus, who suffered and died on the cross with and for them.

Stanza two depicts John 19:34: “One of the soldiers pierced his side with a spear, and at once blood and water came out.” This scene is only mentioned in the Gospel of John, and it relates with the scriptural characteristics of an innocent victim as found in Exodus 12:46, Numbers 9:12, and Zechariah 12:10. The slaves could easily relate to Jesus as an innocent victim.

Carlton Young suggests that “William Farley Smith’s setting lends itself to the choir or a soloist singing the Good Friday account with the congregation answering ‘and he never said a mumbalin’ word’” (Carlton R. Young, Companion to the United Methodist Hymnal, 392). Smith’s arrangement is more in the form of a concertized or arranged spiritual.

The arranged spiritual became popular in 1871 with The Fisk Jubilee Singers. John W. Work, who led the Fisk Jubilee Singers from 1898-1904, in American Negro Songs: 230 Folk Songs and Spirituals, Religious and Secular. writes:

Mr. White [the treasurer of Fisk University] decided on a style of singing the spiritual which eliminated every element that detracted from pure emotion of the song. Harmony was diatonic and limited very largely to the primary triads and the dominant seventh. Dialect was not stressed but was used only where it was vital to the spirit of the song (15).

Early arrangers of the concert spiritual, such as Hall Johnson, Harry T. Burleigh, R. Nathaniel Dett, William Dawson, and Undine Smith Moore, included these characteristics: homophonic textures, triadic voicing or harmony; simple to complex rhythms, and terse dynamics. Smith’s arrangement of “He Never Said a Mumbalin’ Word” exhibits these characteristics.

Later arrangers of the concert spiritual such as Moses Hogan, Roland Carter, Rosephanye Powell, and Uzee Brown Jr. expanded the musical dimensions of sound to include virtuosic vocal technique, homophonic and polyphonic textures, extended sonorities, more complex rhythms, and more percussive attack of consonants.

Adolphus Hailstork (b. 1941), professor of music and composer-in-residence at Old Dominion University in Norfolk, Virginia, composed a choral arrangement of “He Never Said a Mumbalin’ Word” in 1994 titled “Crucifixion” found in Five Short Choral Works. This arrangement is a dramatic interpretation of great power containing masterful counterpoint. Moses Hogan (1957-2003) has a solo arrangement of this spiritual found in The Deep River Collection.

John and Alan Lomax recorded Huddie William Ledbetter, best known as “Lead Belly,” singing this spiritual in an authentic folk version. It is included on Smithsonian Folkways 1994 boxed set, Lead Belly’s Last Sessions. The Lomaxes included this spiritual in their collection American Ballads and Folk Songs with variant stanzas.

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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