Home Worship Planning History of Hymns History of Hymns: 'Jesus Walked this Lonesome Valley'

History of Hymns: 'Jesus Walked this Lonesome Valley'

By C. Michael Hawn

“Jesus Walked this Lonesome Valley”
American Folk Hymn, African American Spiritual
The Faith We Sing, 2112

Jesus walked this lonesome valley;
he had to walk it by himself.
Oh, nobody else could walk it for him;
he had to walk it by himself.

The origins of this folk hymn, appropriate for Holy Week, are shrouded in obscurity. It first appeared in U.S.A. hymnals during the second half of the twentieth century. Its frequency of inclusion increased by the end of the last century and continues into the current one. Although listed as an American folk hymn in most hymnals, it appears that its origins may be found in a conflation of the Appalachian folk song tradition and the African American spiritual. The song, known as part of a group under the theme of “journey songs,” appears in The Faith We Sing as one of many variants, much simplified and adapted both in text and melody.

Appalachian Roots

Folk song ethnomusicologist Cecil J. Sharp (1859-1924) notes that a category of “lonesome and love tunes” may be found in the Appalachian Mountains of the southeastern United States. These are often mournful ballads that dealt with loss of life and love. The compilation he published with Olive Dame Campbell, English Folk Songs from the Southern Appalachians (New York, 1917), is an extensive collection of songs from West Virginia, western Virginia, western North Carolina, eastern Tennessee, the northwest tip of South Carolina, northern Georgia, and northern Alabama. He describes the geographical setting of the people who sang these songs to him:

The region is from its inaccessibility a very secluded one. There are but few roads—most of them little better than mountain tracks—and practically no railroads. Indeed, so remote and shut off from outside influence were, until quite recently, these sequestered mountain valleys that the inhabitants have for a hundred years or more been completely isolated and cut off from all traffic with the rest of the world (Sharp, iv).

The word “lonesome” plays a large role in many songs from this region, including “lonesome dove,” “lonesome day,” “lonesome night,” and “lonesome grave,” among others. In addition to loneliness, these songs often carry a melancholy sensibility and helpless fatalism in which the characters in the narrative are caught in events over which they have no agency or must live with the consequences of actions they have initiated. “Lonesome Valley” seems to be the most prominent usage in the “lonesome” family and somewhat iconic in its own right, even used as the title of a novel by Henry Hornsby, Lonesome Valley (New York, 1949).

A quick overview of some of the songs that mention “lonesome valley” situates this often-used phrase in a specific emotional ethos (italics added):

“In Seaport Town” (recorded in North Carolina, 1916)
The song is a narrative of a murdered brother as sung by his sister:

They wandered over the hills and mountains
And through a many of a place unknown,
Till at last they came to a lonesome valley
And there they killed him dead alone.

“Pretty Saro” (recorded in North Carolina, 1916)
A ballad of unrequited love:

Down in some lonesome valley, down in some lone place,
Where the small birds do whistle their notes to increase;
But when I get sorrow, I’ll set down and cry
And think of my darling, my darling so nigh.

“Young Hunting” (recorded in Georgia, 1914)
In this ballad, Lady Margaret murders loving Henry with a knife when he refuses her advances:

Who cares I for your bow and arrow,
And it all in its prime,
I fly away to some lonesome valley
And ‘light on some high pine.

“The Sweet Priméroses”
This narrative is the story of a young lady in need of comfort who rejects the advances of a “deceitful, young man” and admonishes him:

I will take thee down to some lonesome valley,
Where no man nor mortal shall ever me tell;
Where the pretty little small birds do change their voices,
And every moment their notes do swell.

Variants of Lonesome Valley

George Pullen Jackson (1874-1953), another ethnomusicologist and folk song collector, explores the religious dimension of songs from this region and, more specifically, the relationship between spirituals in both black and white communities during the first half of the twentieth century in White and Negro Spirituals: Their Life Span and Kinship (Locust Valley, 1943). He notes:

Like the religious folk song of the white people, like all true folk songs, indeed, they are fluid; they merge and diverge, ever in different tonal and lingual aspects. Even those songs which seem to the casual observer to be clear cut and comparatively fixed entities—‘Swing Low’, ‘Lonesome Valley’ and others—are found, with a little diligence in search, in widely variant forms which eventually wander so far from what we have arbitrarily taken as a norm that the norm is no longer recognizable in the wanderer entity (Jackson, White and Negro Spirituals, 143).

Elsewhere, Jackson, when comparing melodies and texts found in both the white and black spiritual traditions, favors the white version as the source of the spirituals, indicating that similar songs were from camp meetings initially and therefore belonged to the white spiritual tradition (Jackson, White Spirituals in the Southern Uplands, 273). This assertion has been strongly questioned by many, including composer, scholar, and civil rights activist Bernice Johnson Reagon, who states:

Working out survival in this land resulted in Black people taking on many aspects of the culture in which we found ourselves. It was the cost of survival. But I was raised to understand that it was not a one-way street, that often the foundation of what has been created in this land came from our culture, our knowledge, and our talents . . . One way of shoring up the position that one group is superior is to make that group the source of all things of value, all things believed to be constructive (Reagon, 77-78).

One variant appears in Jackson’s seminal collection, Spiritual Folk Songs of Early America (Locust Valley, NY, 1953). He recorded it in 1933 at the Cumberland foothills of (Monteagle) Tennessee, at the famous Highlander Folk School:

You got to go that lonesome valley,
You got to go there by yourself;
There’s no one can go there for you,
You got to go there, you got to go there by yourself.
(Jackson, Spiritual Folk-Songs of Early America, No. 214)

Other stanzas recorded by Jackson at this time begin, “You got to lie in that lonesome graveyard,” and “Some folks say that John was a Baptist.” Jackson suggests that the “source of this spiritual song is very likely ‘In Seaport Town’” (Jackson, Spiritual Folk Songs, 216), the first song cited above, as collected by Cecil Sharp in which the recurring phrase “Till at last they came to a lonesome valley” appears.

“Lonesome Valley” seems to have been brought into general public awareness through ballad and folk singers in the first half of the twentieth century. David Miller, a folk musician, recorded it in 1927, according to some sources. But it is Woody Guthrie (1912-1967), who made it available on Woody Guthrie, Library of Congress Recording (recorded in 1940; released in 1964). “Lonesome Valley” is listed among the songs on the album. The following YouTube recording provides a version influenced by the Appalachian folk tradition: youtube.com/watch?v=ZEEA1kQXEI8. Pete Seeger (1919-2014) gives the song a Bluegrass banjo treatment in a live recording with Arlo Guthrie (b. 1947) in the 1970s: youtube.com/watch?v=5NJFiSwkHyc.

African American Versions

What precedes might seem to settle the origins of this song to some degree; but, as is the case in many folk songs communicated by oral tradition, it is rarely that simple. Tracing the “original” version is, in many cases, futile and not really relevant. Songs may be passed from one person to another, especially when folk singers traveled, and are quickly adapted locally through oral/aural tradition. In this cultural context, written music may be an unknown (and untrusted) form of transmission. The point is that there is something in a melody, theme, or turn of phrase that catches hold and develops a life of its own resulting in numerous variants.

Is it possible that this folk song represents a crosscultural exchange between white and black rural communities? Some accounts of a variant of our song appear in pre-Civil War slave encounters as well as during the Civil War. Dated in 1862, during the War, the following descriptions from encounters with a Gullah community, a region off the coasts of Georgia and South Carolina, indicate a deep connection with these enslaved people and “Lonesome Valley,” a song that obviously had been sung for some time before this account. This description comes from the journal (1854-1864) of Charlotte Forten (1837-1914), a Philadelphia-born free black American, who traveled to the southern states before the Civil War. She spent June 22 through November 29, 1862, on the island of St. Helena off the coast of Georgia:

Wednesday, Oct. 29 [1862]. We went into the school [in the Baptist church], and heard the children read and spell. The teachers tell us that they have made great improvement in a very short time, and I noticed with pleasure how bright, how eager to learn many of them seem. The singing delighted me most. They sang beautifully in their rich, sweet clear tones, and with that peculiar swaying motion which I had noticed before in the older people, and which seems to make their singing all the more effective. Besides several other tunes they sang "Marching Along" with much spirit, and then one of their own hymns "Down in the Lonesome Valley," which is sweetly solemn and most beautiful. Dear children! born in slavery, but free at last! (Forten, 129)

Sunday, Nov. 16 [1862]. Felt too tired to go to church to-day. Some of the grown people came in this morn. I read them the Sermon on the Mount. And then they sang some of their own beautiful hymns; among them “Down in the Lonesome Valley” which I like the best of all. I want to hear it sung every day” (Forten, 134).

Additional renderings of the song noted in Forten’s journal noted on November 23 and 27 indicate that this was indeed not only a favorite of the Gullah community, but also a piece with which they identified closely and had, most likely, a long-standing place in their repertoire.

Quaker abolitionist Lucy McKim Garrison (1842-1877) refers to hearing “Lonesome Valley” during the Civil War in her collection of eight spirituals in a letter to the editor included in Dwight’s Journal of Music (8 November 1862, p. 255), but a copy is not available. She was visiting St. Helena off the coast of South Carolina during the Civil War at virtually the same time as Charlotte Forten. Her version is probably the one that appears in the seminal early postbellum collection of African American spirituals of which she was one of the compilers, Slave Songs of the United States (New York, 1867) by Allen, Ware, and Garrison. This collection contained a distinct variant with no apparent melodic relationship to the version in today’s hymnals included in the section entitled “Southeastern Slave Songs” under the title “The Lonesome Valley” (No. 7). The incipit (first line) states:

My brudder, ‘want to get religion?
Go down in de lonesome valley . . .
To meet my Jesus there.

A note beneath the song is very informative:

‘De valley,’ and ‘de lonesome valley’ were familiar words in their [the slaves] religious experience. To descend into that region implied the same process with the ‘anxious seat’ of the camp-meeting” (Col. [Thomas Wentworth] Higginson, 5).

Higginson, an abolitionist who served as a colonel in the First South Carolina Volunteers from 1862-1864, the first Federally constituted black regiment, also notes the connection between the “lonesome valley” and the baptism of slaves.

American poet Carl Sandburg (1878-1967) cites the African American spiritual “You’ve got to cross it by yourself” in his The American Songbag (New York, 1927). Although this melody bears some resemblance to the one in hymnals, it is a distinct variant. The text follows in dialect:

You got to cross that River Jordan,
You got to cross it foh yohself;
O there cain’t nobody cross it foh you;
You got to cross it foh yohself.
Cain’t yoh brothah cross it foh you,
You got to cross it foh yohself.

You got to stand that test of judgment,
You got to stand it foh yohself;
O there cain’t nobody cross it foh you;
You got to cross it foh yohself.
Cain’t yoh pahson cross it foh you,
You got to cross it foh yohself (Sandburg, 486).

Just three years later, Mary Allen Grissom published a collection titled The Negro Sings a New Heaven (Chapel Hill, NC, 1930) with the following variant, also in dialect:

Refrain:

Oh you got tuh walk-a that lonesome Valley,
You got tuh walk it by yo’sef;
No one heah may walk it with you,
You got tuh walk it by yo-sef.

Stanzas:

When you reach the rivah Jurdun . . .

When you face that Judgement mawnin’ . . .

Loud an’ strong yo Mastuh callin’ . . .

You got tuh stand yo’ trial in Judgmunt . . .

Jurdun’s stream is cold and chilly . . .

When my dear Lawd was hangin’ bleedin’. . .

You got tuh join that Christian Army . . .

You got tuh live a life of service . . .

Grissom notes that “Most of the songs included in this volume have been taken directly from the Negroes in their present-day worship, and have been selected from those sung in the neighborhood of Louisville, Kentucky, and certain rural areas in Adair County” (Grissom, Foreword, n.p.).

Lonesome Valley in Current Hymnals

To this point, all variants begin with the second person singular—"you got to walk that lonesome valley. . .”, “you got to stand that test of judgment . . .”, “you got to cross that lonesome valley . . . ”. Eileen Guenther lists a variant that begins in the first person singular, “I have to walk this lonesome valley” (Guenther, 386). The question for this writer is, “When did Jesus enter into this journey song?”

Similar “journey songs” appear in hymnals, usually ascribed to African American origins. “I want Jesus to walk with me” (United Methodist Hymnal, 522) is among the best known of these. While usually designated as an African American spiritual, “it is probably one of the ‘white spirituals’ which thrived for more than two hundred years in the rural Appalachian culture,” according to Donald Hustad (Hustad, 152). He sees an affinity between “I want Jesus to walk with me” and the Appalachian ballad “Poor Wayfaring Stranger,” another journey song.

Source: Stanza 1, Jackson, Spiritual Folk-Songs of Early America, No. 40.

This writer proposes that the designation of Jesus entered into this song is a part of the African American experience. Variants with roots in the Appalachian folk tradition do not mention Jesus. In the conflation of this African American variant with other journey songs, the song is transformed as a narrative that implies that Jesus, on the way to the cross, is the model for those who suffer. Just as Jesus stood alone before Pilate on trial (Mark 15; Luke 23), we must face our trial(s), a play on the word(?), by ourselves (stanza three). In the context of other spirituals, the ‘trial’ may be worldly—“Nobody knows the trouble I’ve seen”—or the judgment beyond this world—“My Lord, what a morning, when the stars begin to fall.”

Earlier variants in the first or second person that focus on the solo traveler seem at odds theologically and experientially with “I want Jesus to walk with me,” a spiritual that sees Jesus as a companion “along [our] pilgrim journey.” However, African American scholar and teacher Howard Thurman (1899-1981), citing the variant “I’ve got to walk my lonesome valley,” addresses the “lonesome” quality of this song beyond the black experience in the United States; he includes all humanity:

Here we are in the presence of an essential insight into all human experience. It seems, sometimes, that it is the solitariness of life that causes it to move with such intensity and power. In the last analysis all the great moments of profoundest meaning are solitary. We walk the ways of life together with our associates, our friends, our loved ones. How precious it is to lean upon another, to have a staggered sense of the everlasting arms felt in communion with a friend. But there are thresholds before which all must stop and no one may enter save God, and even He in disguise. I am alone but even in my aloneness I seem sometimes to be all that there is in life and all that there is in life is synthesized in me (Thurman, 120).

Thurman senses an affinity between this spiritual and another, “I feel like a motherless child . . . when far away and lost from home” (Thurman, 120).

Eileen Guenther categorizes the variant “I have to walk that this lonesome valley” as a spiritual addressing conversion:

Decisions on converting to Christianity did not come easily, and slaves sang of this theology in songs like I Have to Walk This Lonesome Valley. Other songs deal with the price of salvation, trials to be endured, and temptations to overcome along the way of achieving assurance of salvation (Guenther, 386).

Regardless of its origins, this song connects profoundly with those who suffer. It appears in the standard three-stanza version in an ecumenical Asian collection, E. A. C. C. [East Asia Christian Conference] Hymnal (Tokyo, 1968), No. 94, under the general editorship of Sri Lankan ecumenist D. T. Niles (1908-1970). Interestingly enough, in spite of variants having roots in the African American tradition, this song does not appear in African American hymnals, while its companion journey song, “I want Jesus to walk with me,” does. Finally, Worship and Rejoice (Carol Stream, IL, 2001) identifies this song as an African American spiritual, and adds three stanzas that solidify it as a Holy Week ballad centering on the journey of Jesus:

Jesus walked this lonesome valley . . .

Jesus prayed for his disciples . . .

Jesus died on Calvary’s mountain . . .

Jesus rose from death’s dark prison . . .

These additional stanzas by Jack Schrader (b. 1942) both add to the many variants of the past and imply a relationship between this ballad and the spiritual “Were you there when they crucified my Lord?”— a song that takes the singer on a journey with Jesus and his passion.

Further Reading:

Charlotte L. Forten, The Journal of Charlotte L. Forten: With an introduction and notes by Ray Allen Billington (Dryden Press, New York, 1953).

Mary Allen Grissom, The Negro Sings a New Heaven (Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 1930).

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

Donald P. Hustad, Dictionary-Handbook to Hymns for the Living Church (Carol Stream, IL: Hope Publishing Co., 1978).

George Pullen Jackson, Spiritual Folk-Songs of Early America (Locust Valley, NY: J. J. Augustin Publisher, 1953).

_____. White and Negro Spirituals: Their Life Span and Kinship (Locust Valley, NY: J. J. Augustin Publisher, 1943).

_____. White Spirituals in the Southern Uplands (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1933).

Bernice Johnson Reagon, If You Don’t Go, Don’t Hinder Me (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2001).

Carl Sandburg, The American Songbag (New York: Harcourt, Brace and Co., 1927).

Cecil J. Sharp and Olive Dame Campbell, English Folk Songs from the Southern Appalachians (New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1917).

Howard Thurman, Deep River and the Negro Spiritual Speaks of Life and Death (Richmond, IN: Friends United Press, 1975).


C. Michael Hawn is University Distinguished Professor Emeritus of Church Music and Adjunct Professor and Director of the Doctor of Pastoral Music Program at Perkins School of Theology, Southern Methodist University.

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