Home Worship Planning History of Hymns History of Hymns: “O Freedom” and “Freedom Is Coming”

History of Hymns: “O Freedom” and “Freedom Is Coming”

By C. Michael Hawn

O Freedom,” African American Spiritual;
The Faith We Sing, No. 2194

“Freedom Is Coming,” South African Freedom Song;
The Faith We Sing, No. 2192

O freedom! O freedom!
O freedom over me.
And before I’ll be a slave,
I’d be buried in my grave,
and go home to the Lord and be free.

Freedom is coming. Freedom is coming.
Freedom is coming, O yes, I know.

Underground Railroad

Songs are about many things, but ultimately their meaning may be found both in the originator of the song and in the identity of the singer who sings it. Whenever I teach a class in hymnology, I ask students to share a hymn that speaks to them and tells us something about who they are. We sing about those parts of our lives that are meaningful to us, what most profoundly touches us.

When experiencing congregational song, many of the readers of this column may imagine a hymn printed in a collection. The artifact itself is somewhat objectified in this process and, unless we take the time, we do not look beyond the page at who gives us the song and what it meant in its original context. The beauty of congregational song delivered in a hymnal is that it may be very meaningful to each of us for a variety of reasons ­­— in essence, the hymn may say something of our identity regardless of its origins.

The two songs discussed in this column also speak to the identity of the original singers, but in a different way. It is unlikely that the communities of origin — a post-Civil War slave in the first case, and a black or “coloured” (mixed-race) South African in the apartheid era in the second case — ever saw the song written down, and certainly not in a hymnal. These songs were transmitted directly in gatherings with others in similar circumstances of oppression, expressing the deepest hopes and aspirations of a people. In addition to being sung in the “safe places” of worship or secret meetings, they were also sung as a witness to their defiance of oppression on the street. The musical structure of these songs is influenced by the requirements of oral transmission — an economy of language where every word carries a pregnant subtext that may not be apparent to the “outsider,” and a portable, flexible musical style that is easily learned and harmonized by ear, and embellished in the moment and on the go.

Some issues arise when encountering these songs in a twenty-first-century hymnal supplement. I will attempt to address them.

How did these songs find a place in a recent collection?

Who should be singing these songs? Are they for everyone or a select group?

First, let’s address something of the origins and transmission of these songs from their origins to the present day.

Freedom is the theme of many African American spirituals. This is no surprise. Until an individual has experienced bondage in the form of slavery, it would be difficult to understand the complexity of the concept of “freedom” and what it means to be truly free. Dr. Eileen Guenther, Professor of Church Music at Wesley Theological Seminary, has collected the writings of a wide range of African Americans on topics covered in the spirituals. The following are selected statements found in her book In Their Own Words: Slave Life and the Power of the Spirituals (2016):

During all my slave life I never lost sight of freedom. It was always on my heart; it came to me like a solemn thought, and often circumstances much stimulate the desire to be free and raised great expectation of it. . . . We always called “freedom” “possum” so as to keep the white people from knowing what we were talking about. We all understood it. (Ambrose Headen) (p. 118)

If I had my life to live over again, I would die fighting rather than be a slave. I want no man’s yoke on my shoulders no more. (Robert Falls) (p. 119)

Let me be free! – Is there any God? Why am I a slave? I will run away. I will not stand it. Get caught or get clear, I’ll try it. . . . I have only one life to lose. I had as well be killed running as die standing. . . . It cannot be that I shall live and die a slave. (Frederick Douglass) (p. 119)

After reading these accounts, it is easy for us to see that “Oh Freedom” is a lyrical expression of the deepest desire of the singer. Dr. Guenther notes, “A song of resistance, defiance, and escape, it captures the determination of the slave’s heart. Although clearly in physical bondage, slaves did not necessarily consider themselves enslaved, as the line, ‘Before I’d be a slave, I’d be buried in my grave’ attests” (p. 117).

While the spiritual seems to have its origins in the Reconstruction era following the Civil War, its message was still vibrant during the American Civil Rights Movement. The famous folk, blues, jazz, and spiritual singer Odetta Holmes (1930-2008), known simply as Odetta, made this song a part of the “Spiritual Trilogy” (https://www.youtube.com/watch?time_continue=17&v=GEsSABmWKu8) on her first solo album, Odetta Sings Ballads and Blues (1956). She had hoped to sing at President Barack Obama’s Inauguration in January 2009, but she died on December 8, 2008. Folksinger Joan Baez (b. 1941) performed “O Freedom” in a very different rendition (https://www.youtube.com/watch?time_continue=23&v=mdaHb4oG24A) at the famous March on Washington (1963).

“Freedom Is Coming” comes from the apartheid struggle (1948-1994) in South Africa in the mid-twentieth century. Unlike the slaves in the United States who were brought from Africa, colonial occupation by the Dutch, beginning in 1652, and British, beginning in 1815, subjected the oppressed people in South Africa. During the decades leading up to the liberation of Nelson Mandela (1918-2013) from prison (1990) and his leadership as president (1994-1998), the freedom songs of South Africa helped spread the news of the struggle.

Apartheid Sign

Anders Nyberg (b. 1955), a Swedish musician from Stockholm, took his choir “Fjedur” to apartheid South Africa in 1978. During his time in South Africa, he collected three volumes of freedom songs that were subsequently published in Sweden, then by the Iona Community in Scotland, and in the USA in the collection Freedom Is Coming (Utryck, 1984). His singers spread these songs in churches throughout Sweden following their return. Some were included in the Church of Sweden (Lutheran) hymnal Den Svenska Psalmboken med Tillägg (The Swedish Psalm Book with Supplement, 2002). The appearance of Fjedur at the Budapest Assembly of the Lutheran World Federation (1984) assured that the songs would be disseminated around the world, increasing awareness of the anti-apartheid struggle in Europe and the United States. (Please see http://www.aiohow.org/songs/freedom-is-coming-by-anders-nyberg.html.)

In the waning years of the apartheid struggle, CNN news reports often included a snippet of one of the freedom songs. The most famous of these is “Siyahamba” (https://www.umcdiscipleship.org/resources/history-of-hymns-siyahamba).

Finally, who should be singing these songs? Are they for everyone or a select group? For those of us who have not experienced oppression like the groups that gave us these songs, we may feel self-conscious about singing them. We may even wonder if we are “allowed” to sing them. After all, they are so integrally connected to the struggle and identity of particular peoples. I believe that such self-consciousness is a good thing. In a time when much discussion of cultural appropriation is taking place, it is healthy to pause and reflect on an issue that may (should) make us a bit uncomfortable.

In this case, the topic of “freedom” is universal. All humans are in bondage in one form or another. It is interesting that in both cases noted above, these songs have come into the awareness of the broader world community through intermediary groups that were not a part of the originators of the songs. Odetta was not a slave, though she most likely had a slave heritage. Joan Baez was not an African American. Both realized that “O Freedom” was a song that still had relevance for the Civil Rights Movement, and they brought it back into use.

Anders Nyberg and his ensemble Fjedur sensed both the beauty and witness of “Freedom Is Coming” and other South African freedom songs originating from oppressed South Africans and, in turn, bore witness through sharing those songs in performances and publications in Europe and the USA. The meaning of a song is, in part, derived from the identity and experiences of the singer.

In 1992, I participated in a teaching mission in Cuba. In preparation, I searched for a repertoire that would come from beyond the Euro-North American context and that could be communicated easily through oral transmission in Spanish. Arriving on Epiphany Sunday in Cuba, I taught “Freedom Is Coming” to the congregation of La Primera Iglesia Bautista de Mantanzas that evening. On the two-hour car ride from Havana to Matanzas, I worked with the pastor to devise simple Spanish translations for several South African freedom songs. Almost immediately, the congregation was singing the stanza cited at the beginning of this article in Spanish: «¡Libertad viene! ¡Libertad viene! ¡Libertad viene, Oh sí, yo sé!» The singing intensified when I adjusted the text to «¡Jésus viene, Oh sí, yo sé!» The windows were wide open to the street, and the singing attracted quite a crowd outside. I will not hypothesize what the message was for these worshipers and others attracted by the congregation’s singing, but singing about freedom in the context of the Cuban political reality in 1992 potentially struck a chord of deep longing, and it may have been viewed as an act of witness and, perhaps, even defiance. A song from one place of oppression found a voice in another, expressing at the same time solidarity across continents and a fundamental hope of humanity.

It is dangerous to set up a dichotomy between political struggle and spiritual faith. Vital spiritual worship is always aware of pain and oppression in the world. In the context of these two songs, the words of Galatians 5:1 ring with profound and— perhaps—fresh resonance: “It is for freedom that Christ has set us free. Stand firm, then, and do not let yourselves be burdened again by a yoke of slavery” (NIV).

Christian identity is integral to love of neighbor (Mark 12:31) and bearing one another’s burdens (Galatians 6:2). We sing together not only to express our deepest concerns, but also in solidarity with others. This is perhaps at the heart of the sung identity of the Christian community who is continually being shaped by song and sacrament into the body of Christ. I invite you to make these songs of oppression part of your Christian identity ministering to your own forms of bondage, in solidarity with others who are persecuted, and as a witness in defiance of oppression in whatever form it takes.

Bible verses marked NIV are from New International Version (NIV)

Holy Bible, New International Version®, NIV® Copyright ©1973, 1978, 1984, 2011 by Biblica, Inc.® Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide.

For further reading:

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

Hawn, C. Michael. “Singing Freedom: David Dargie and South African Liberation Song,” Gather into One Praying and Singing Globally. Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 2003.

_____. "South African freedom songs." The Canterbury Dictionary of Hymnology. Canterbury Press, accessed October 14, 2017, http://www.hymnology.co.uk/s/south-african-freedom-songs.

Mandela, Nelson. Long Walk to Freedom: The Autobiography of Nelson Mandela. New York: Little, Brown and Company, 1994.

About this week’s writers:

C. Michael Hawn is the 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, Dallas, TX.

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