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“Just a Little Talk with Jesus”

TITLE: "Just a Little Talk with Jesus"
AUTHOR: Cleavant Derricks, born Chattanooga, Tennessee, May 13, 1910; died Chattanooga, Tennessee, April 14, 1977
TUNE: JUST A LITTLE TALK
COMPOSER: Cleavant Derricks
SOURCE: Worship & Song, no. 3107
SCRIPTURE: Psalm 36:5-6; Romans 8:34b
TOPIC: affliction, trouble, struggle, strife, doubt, fear, friendship, prayer, conversion, sin, sorrow, restoration, healing, care

Background

Cleavant Derricks, African American and father of twin actor sons (Cleavant Derricks and Clinton Derricks-Carroll), studied at the Cadek Conservatory of Music, Knoxville, Tennessee, Tennessee Agricultural & Industrial State College (now Tennessee State University), and the American Baptist Theological Seminary in Nashville. By age twenty-one, he was at the Vermont Avenue Baptist Church in Washington, D.C., where he directed a gospel choir with over 100 voices and associated with numerous well-known musicians of the day, including his friend, Mahalia Jackson. As a Baptist pastor, he later served churches in Dayton, Knoxville, and Jackson, Tennessee; Beloit, Wisconsin; and Washington, D.C. He founded and grew the Ebenezer Baptist Church in Washington, D.C., during the 1940s.

Derricks established a solid reputation and career as pastor, choir director, poet, musician, and composer -- with over 300 songs to his credit and several song collections. "Just a Little Talk with Jesus" is his best-known and most-performed song, but others include "When God Dipped His Love in My Heart," "We'll Soon Be Done with Troubles and Trials," "When He Blessed My Soul" and "I Want the Light from the Lighthouse to Shine on Me." In 1984, Derricks was inducted posthumously into the Gospel Music Hall of Fame.

Although African American, Derricks' music had great appeal to southern white singers and the singing conventions, even at a time in United States history when white singers would not normally perform music by African Americans. Many of Derricks' songs were published by white publishers, including the shaped note songbooks and the publications of Stamps-Baxter. There has been frequent exchange of music between black and white churches since the days of slavery, and Derricks' songs are no exception. His songs continue to enjoy great popularity among black and white churches, publishers' catalogues, and recording artists today.

Music

Musically, "Just a Little Talk with Jesus" is not at all complex. The melody remains within a mid-range of a sixth, with most notes and phrases in the Bb- to D-range. Harmonically, the song consists mostly of primary chords with a few secondary chords included, with some chromaticism resulting from voice leading and filling in intervals in the alto and bass lines. The solo bass notes that introduce the phrases of the refrain are a favorite technique of gospel music. The sixteenth-note motive becomes a hallmark of this song, and Derricks is careful to include the percussive word "little" in most of those: "then a little," "just a little," "have a little," feel a little," "know a little," and "find a little," the exceptions being the still percussive "tell him all about," "then a cloud of doubt" and "Jesus is a friend."

Text

Cleavant Derricks was as much a poet as a musician -- as evidenced by his exact rhymes and the technique of internal rhyme demonstrated in "Just a Little Talk with Jesus." Note how his choice of short, simple words complement the rapid rhythmic figuration of "then a little light," "then a cloud of doubt" and "Jesus is a friend," as well as his placement of the important words of text on longer and terminal notes of each phrase. The verses are personal, filled with I, me and my, while the refrain is corporate with us and our.

Verse one speaks of a life of sin being saved and made whole. Verse two names the ongoing struggles of sin, sadness, and doubt being transformed by Jesus. Verse three lists doubt, fears, cares, and sadness all being made right by Jesus through prayer.

Prayer Wheel

The question is often asked (and if it isn't, it should probably be explained to singers and worshipers, anyway): "Why is there a Buddhist prayer wheel in this Christian song?"

A prayer wheel is a cylindrical container, perhaps made of wood, metal, or some other substance. Inside are inscribed the words of a prayer; or prayers may be written on a piece of paper and placed inside. Prayer wheels are commonly used in Tibetan Buddhism, and practitioners believe that as the prayer wheel is turned or spun around, each rotation results in the prayers inside actually being somehow prayed, even if not spoken. So, why is the prayer wheel in a southern Gospel song and why is it in Worship & Song?

Unfortunately, it is unknown what Derricks intended by including it in his song or what his own personal experience with a prayer wheel might have been. The editorial committee discussed this line and considered replacing it with something more explicitly Christian, something like "feel the Holy Spirit churning," a line used in some recorded and printed versions. The committee left the original line in for the following reasons:
  1. Prayer wheels were used by some Christian slaves and later by post-Civil War African American worshipers;
  2. Prayer wheels have been used by southern and rural Christian whites in worship and private devotion;
  3. Even today some Pentecostals and Charismatics use prayer wheels;
  4. Christian prayer wheels are being manufactured, sold, and used today;
  5. The committee struggled with editing out a well-known phrase from a well-known gospel song. While it is known that prayer wheels are of great importance in Buddhism, the committee also recognized their place in broader Christian practice, if not usually United Methodist. In the end, the committee realized that the context of the prayer wheel in this song is intentionally Christian and not at all connected with Buddhism. Keep the line if you sing this song; or if you prefer, edit it.
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