Home History of Hymns: "Lord of the Dance"

History of Hymns: "Lord of the Dance"

Sydney Carter

“Lord of the Dance”
by Sydney Carter;
The United Methodist Hymnal, No. 261

I danced in the morning
When the world was begun,
And I danced in the moon
And the stars and the sun,
And I came down from heaven
And I danced on the earth,
At Bethlehem I had my birth.
Refrain: Dance, then, wherever you may be,
I am the Lord of the Dance, said he,
And I'll lead you all, wherever you may be,
And I'll lead you all in the Dance, said he.*

*©1963 Stainer & Bell Ltd. (Administered by Hope Publishing Company, Carol Stream, IL 60188). All rights reserved. Used by permission

Upon his death on March 13, 2004, at the age of 88, Sydney Bertram Carter’s obituary in the London Daily Telegraph began with the bold assertion, “Lord of the Dance” was “the most celebrated religious song of the 20th century.” This statement deserves further examination.

“Lord of the Dance” (1962) captured the spirit of the 1960s protest movement in the United States. It became a sacred equivalent for songs by Pete Seeger in the late 1950s, including “Where have all the flower’s gone” and “To everything turn” (later made even more popular by Peter, Paul, and Mary), as well as Bob Dylan’s “Blowin’ in the wind” (1962). While the direct – even, for some, sacrilegious – language accompanied by the folk acoustic guitar bordered on heresy for some; for others, these songs were a breath of fresh air. “Lord of the Dance” brought this sound and spirit into the church, especially in services designed to reach young people.

Born in 1915, Carter was educated at Oxford, and he taught high school in the 1940s. Sympathizing with the Quakers, he served in an ambulance unit with the Society of Friends during World War II. Carter began composing songs in the 1950s and 1960s, many of which remain very popular in the schools of Great Britain to this day.

Called a “carol” by Carter, “Lord of the Dance” was not the first song on this theme. “Tomorrow will be my dancing day,” a seventeenth-century English carol, provided an obvious model for this famous hymn. An earlier medieval carol also explored the allegory of the dance as a metaphor for humanity’s relationship with Christ. Carter adapted a melody from the Shaker dance tune Simple Gifts. The first four stanzas appeared in the Student Christian Congress Hymns (1963), and the five-stanza version in 9 Songs or Ballads (1964). Carter’s Green Print for Song (1974) suggests that he wrote the words first and then adapted the tune of Simple Gifts to the text later. Simple Gifts has been identified as a quintessential American folk tune by composer Aaron Copeland (1900-1990), who quoted the tune as the climax of his famous symphonic work Appalachian Spring (1944).

A favorite of youth groups in the 1960s and 1970s, “Lord of the Dance” spread far beyond the Christian community, partially because the song never mentions Jesus or Christ by name. Its most famous use beyond the church is as a “Celtic” dance for Michael Flatley’s world-famous show, Lord of the Dance. The origins of the tune are not Celtic, however, but thoroughly American.

Always the iconoclast, Carter’s theological perspective may not pass all tests of orthodoxy. The opening lines of this first-person account of Christ’s life have been thought by some to “contain a hint of paganism which, mixed with Christianity, makes it attractive to those of ambiguous religious beliefs or none at all.” While inspired by the life of Jesus, Carter implied that the Hindu God Shiva as Nataraja (Shiva’s dancing pose), a statue that sat on his desk, also played a role in the song’s conception. The choice of an adapted Shaker tune for the melody – sometimes called the “shaking Quakers” who were known for their vigorous dancing during their rituals – rounds out the dance theme. Carter acknowledged the theological contradictions, but never attempted to resolve them.

He notes:

“I see Christ as the incarnation of the piper who is calling us. He dances that shape and pattern which is at the heart of our reality. By Christ I mean not only Jesus; in other times and places, other planets, there may be other Lords of the Dance. But Jesus is the one I know of first and best. I sing of the dancing pattern in the life and words of Jesus.”

For the complete text, see http://celtic-lyrics.com/lyrics/309.html (a misnomer since neither the lyrics nor the tune are “Celtic”). The second stanza mentions that the “scribes and Pharisees” would not join in with the dance, but the “fishermen, . . . James and John” did continue the dance with the Dancer. The third stanza has been viewed by some as anti-Semitic – “the holy people said is was a shame” – leading to Christ’s crucifixion.

The fourth stanza has one of those turns of phrases that are typical of many folk-based songs – “it’s hard to dance with the devil on your back” – a bit shocking for those who have grown up with “Abide with me,” yet offering a different perspective on this central narrative in the Christian experience. The final stanza captures the untainted joy of the Resurrection when the dance is complete and all are invited – “I’ll live in you if you live in me.”

Carter placed the primary emphasis on faith rather than creeds or theology. He asserts: “Faith is more basic than language or theology.” Later, he continues this idea: “Scriptures and creeds may come to seem incredible, but faith will still go dancing on.”

Perhaps his most controversial hymn was “It was on a Friday morning that they took me from the cell” (1960) – a polemical text written from the standpoint of one of the thieves on the cross with Christ. See http://theconnexion.net/wp/?p=12227#axzz3I6zeFifb for the full text. The refrain is especially disturbing for some:

It’s God they ought to crucify instead of you and me

I said to the carpenter, a-hanging on the tree.

On the other hand, “One more step along the world I go” (1971) captures the wanderlust of its era. See http://www.oremus.org/hymnal/o/o797.html for the entire text. In a typical Carter fashion, the refrain expresses a carefree sentiment with an ambiguity as to the companion – “you”:

And it's from the old I travel to the new;

keep me traveling along with you.

Another of his hymns that deserves broader use is “When I needed a neighbor” (1965), a hymn that clearly references Matthew 25. See http://www.hymnlyrics.org/requests/were_you_there_creed.php for the complete text. In the spirit of his quotations above, Carter states: “And the creed and the colour and the name won’t matter, Were you there?”

Welsh Hymnologist Alan Luff writes perceptively, “In his notes on his songs Carter insisted that they are to be seen in a state of coming to be, and, although some have now been printed many times in books, they need always to be approached as ready to be remade. He abhorred finality, and called his book Green Print for Song, not ‘Blue print’, because a blue-print was a final draft. He wrote his own tunes, but did not claim to be a musician. He has been fortunate in his arrangers, but none of their versions should be thought of as authentic or final.”

“Lord of the Dance” almost did not appear in The United Methodist Hymnal. It was the only hymn not included in the original Report of the Hymnal Revision Committee to the 1988 General Conference of the Methodist Church. Bishop Woodie W. White influenced its addition at the last minute when he used this song as the theme of his sermon preached at the opening service of the conference.

Alzheimer’s disease began to take a toll on Carter by 1999. He was lovingly cared for by his second wife Leela Nair until his death. A friend, Rabbi Lionel Blue, commented after a visit, “our only contact is a thin thread of memory and his songs. I start singing them, and he joyfully joins in—and I leave him as he continues singing.”

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