History of Hymns: “Let Us Break Bread Together”

by C Michael Hawn

"Let Us Break Bread Together"
African American Spiritual
The United Methodist Hymnal, No. 618

Let us break bread together on our knees.
Let us break bread together on our knees.
When I fall on my knees with my face to the rising sun,
O Lord, have mercy on me.


Perhaps the most commonly sung song during Communion among United Methodists is the African American spiritual “Let us break bread together on our knees.” For American Methodists, the usual posture for receiving the elements is kneeling at an altar rail. The procession to the rail offers the opportunity to sing. The simple structure of this spiritual provides the ideal music to accompany this ritual both because of its text and because of the spirit of the music. It is easily memorized and harmonized.

What are the roots of “Let us break bread,” among the best known of African American spirituals? In a recently published article in the Canterbury Dictionary of Hymnology, written by United Methodist Hymnal editor, Dr. Carlton Young, he reveals the probable roots and major variants of this spiritual. Dr. Young suggests that this “spiritual was formed in the West African Gullah/Geechee slave culture that developed in the costal areas of South-Eastern colonial America, including St Helena Island, Beaufort, and Charleston, South Carolina . . ..”

The text of the version that is commonly sung in the United States was first published in The Journal of American Folklore (1925). The Journal included spirituals, as well as African American folk tales and proverbs that were collected by students at the Penn School on Saint Helena Island, South Carolina.

A second version appeared in Saint Helena Island Spirituals (1925) by Nicholas Ballanta, a very significant collection that included 103 Gullah spirituals. This version incorporates the same basic text, but with variations based on the slave dialect of the region:

Let us break bread togeder on our knees . . .
When I fall on muh knees wid muh face to de risin’ sun
Oh Lawd hab mercy on me.

The music published in this collection is virtually the same as used in most hymnals.

The third version was published in Augustine T. Smythe’s The Carolina Low-Country (1931). Not only is the text significantly different, but also the slave dialect of the region is even stronger in this version:

We will all sing tuhgedduh on dat day . . .
En I’ll fall upon muh knees en face duh risin’ sun,
Oh Lawd, hab mussy on me.

A final fourth stanza begins, “We will all pray tuhgedduh on dat day . . ..” According to hymnologist Jon Michael Spencer, the phrase “on dat day” suggests a use for the song beyond Communion. It is an eschatological reference envisioning hope and a reformation of the established social order beyond human history.

The melody of this version is also significantly different in several ways, including a flattened “blues note” on the highest pitch of the song. While the melody is recognizable, rhythmic and melodic alterations are significant.

Each version incorporates the idea of “fac[ing] the rising sun.” One scholar suggests that this may come from the worship practices of Islamic West Africans. Another speculates that the sun was a symbolic West African source of spiritual light. Another phrase “on our knees” may have been a signal for a secret gathering, though this cannot be verified.

African American composer John Rosamond Johnson (1873-1954) arranged the first solo version with the three stanzas that are common to most hymnals in the United States. He also established the precedent of singing the final stanza up the octave. This practice is observed in several hymnals including The United Methodist Hymnal. This version of the spiritual was popularized by notable African American soloists in the mid-twentieth century such as Paul Robeson, Roland Hayes, and Marian Anderson.

As standardized as the text is, it has been subject to numerous alterations in several hymnals. These changes sometimes alter or eliminate the reference to the rising sun, perhaps because it is not literally accurate. Some include:

“When I fall on my knees, with my face to the Lord of life. . ..”

Others choose to replace the phrase, “on my knees” since many traditions do not receive the elements in this posture. To avoid this, some modify it as follows:

“Let us break bread together, we are one” or
“Let us break bread together in (or “with”) the Lord” or
“Let us praise God together, let us praise.”

Together in Song: Australian Hymnbook II (1999) alters virtually the entire traditional text:

Let us break bread together with the Lord . . .
As we travel through this land, all God's children hand in hand,
Lord, fill all our living with your life.

For me, the greatest loss in this version is the omission of the classic Kyrie eleison at the conclusion of each stanza, “Oh Lord, have mercy on me.”

These changes indicate the difficulty of transferring a song from one ecclesial or cultural tradition to another. However, the inclusion of a select number of African American spirituals in English language hymnals in countries such as Australia, Canada, and England is admirable and reflects the universality of one of the unique contributions of congregational song from the United States to the world. Alterations to congregational songs, especially those from folk sources, are common across cultural and national boundaries. In its most standard and historical form, this spiritual fits the practice and ethos of the Methodist Eucharist liturgy well.

 

Please also see Dean McIntyre's arrangement of Let Us Break Bread Together.

 

C. Michael Hawn is University Distinguished Professor of Church Music, Perkins School of Theology, SMU.

Categories: History of Hymns, Black History Month, Music Resources