History of Hymns: “My Life Flows On”  (“How Can I Keep From Singing?”)

by C. Michael Hawn

"My Life Flows On" ("How Can I Keep From Singing?")
Robert Lowry
The Faith We Sing, No. 2212

Robert Lowry

My life flows on in endless song,
Above earth's lamentation.
I hear the clear, though far off hymn
That hails a new creation.
No storm can shake my inmost calm
While to that Rock I'm clinging.
Since love is Lord of heaven and earth,
How can I keep from singing?


Though the origins of this poignant song are somewhat in doubt, its message is clear. "How Can I Keep From Singing?" is a song of one who has weathered persecution and struggle, but maintains a focus on the Rock, giving thanks for all in song. 

Many hymnals ascribe authorship to Robert Lowry (1826-1899) since the song appears in his famous collection, Bright Jewels for the Sunday School (1869). 

Lowry was known as a gifted Baptist preacher, educator and composer of gospel songs on the East Coast of the U.S. Among his most famous gospel compositions are "Nothing but the Blood of Jesus" (UMH 362), "Shall We Gather at the River" (UMH 723), and "Up from the Grave He Arose" (322). 

He also composed tunes for others' texts, such as MARCHING TO ZION, a camp meeting version of Isaac Watt's text "Come, We that Love the Lord," and NEED, a tune for Annie Hawks' hymn, "I Need Thee Every Hour." 

Even a cursory glance at these compositions as well as others by Bradbury gives one pause about his authorship of "How Can I Keep From singing?" 

The internal evidence demonstrates that, at the least, the hymn's theme and perhaps musical style would have been unusual, if not unique, for Lowry. Some sources suggest that the melody is actually a composition by the famous gospel songwriter, Ira D. Sankey (1840-1908), confusing the picture even further. 

A common practice, especially in 19th-century U.S., was to ascribe authorship for songs that appeared in a collection to the compiler of the volume, or for the compiler to assume authorship. To say the least, authorship could be ambiguous during this time, especially for compositions with a folksong quality such as this one. 

Another source suggests that this hymn appeared in an 1864 earlier compilation by a contemporary of Lowry, Anna Warner (1820-1915), who published several collections. If so, this would predate Lowry's collection by five years. 

Still another compelling theory attributes the source of the hymn melody to the Quakers. The theme of persecution appears in a stanza that is omitted from many hymnals:

When tyrants tremble in their fear
And hear their death knell ringing,
When friends rejoice both far and near
How can I keep from singing?
In prison cell and dungeon vile
Our thoughts to them are winging,
When friends by shame are undefiled
How can I keep from singing?


The Quakers or Society of Friends certainly experienced persecution due to their nonconformist style of worship and pacifist stance toward war and violence. It is easy to imagine that this hymn would offer deep solace for the Quaker community. 

Regardless of the source of the text, the melody is hauntingly beautiful. It flows up and down throughout an octave range several times. This tune -- inherently singable and memorable -- is the perfect vehicle for a text whose primary metaphor is that of music and singing. 

In addition to the allusions to "song" and "hymn" in stanza one, stanza two "hear[s] that music ringing" above "the tumult and the strife." In stanza three, "songs in the night" are provided by the Savior when the "darkness gather[s] round." 

The lyrical quality of the melody conveys effectively the singer's oneness with Christ and resolve in the face of oppression, as well as the spirit of the haunting rhetorical question that unifies the entire hymn, "How can I keep from singing?"
 

Dr. Hawn is professor of sacred music at Perkins School of Theology.

Categories: History of Hymns

Download Now Add to Downloads Folder