Morning Thanks

Garrison Keillor once said we'd all be better off if we all started the day by giving thanks for just one thing. I'll try.

Monday, April 21, 2014

Morning Thanks--"Were You There?"



Handel was playing in our house, The Messiah, as it does every Christmas and every Easter.  My granddaughter pulled up her nose and asked her dad what on earth kind of music her grandpa had on. I'm glad she asked. Now she knows.

But the music that stole away my heart yesterday, Easter morning, was a quiet rendition of the old Negro Spiritual, "Were You There?" done by a choir of eight or nine folks in a small church in a small town where we worshiped. The soloist, who, en-robed, reminded me of the late Orson Welles. He took the lead on one of the verses, in the fashion that most people believe those old spirituals used to be sung: the preacher leading on the verses, the congregation filling with the doleful chorus--"sometimes. . .it causes me to tremble, tremble, tremble. . ." 

I don't think I've ever heard or sung that old spiritual as richly as I heard it yesterday, offered in worship by a few white folks in a yea-big church.  

It was the sheer power of that old hymn that had me thinking there was something oddly discordant in the verses. The first three feature nothing but the horrors of the crucifixion and the title's ludicrous question: well of course we weren't there at Christ's agony; we were in rural Iowa. But the resounding effect of those three verses is the inescapable acknowledgement that we were there, all of us, which is exactly why, "sometimes, it causes me to tremble, tremble, tremble. . ." In human spirit we were there, even if, like Peter, we try to deny it. The music's own tribulation ushers us up the mountain to the doomed horror of Golgatha.

But the final verse that small choir sang was something else altogether: "Where you there when God raised him from the dead?" The sheer terror of Golgatha evaporates with the dawn come Easter morning. There is no cause to "tremble, tremble, tremble," at least not the way one does before that sunrise because with it, our mourning turns to dancing.  That last verse seemed somehow not to fit yesterday.  I'd never thought of that before.

So I tried to find the history of "Were You There," and what I discovered is that the most "traditional" versions of that old spiritual make no reference at all to Easter morning. Go to You Tube and look for yourself. Mahalia Jackson doesn't include the resurrection, nor does Paul Robeson or Marion Williams or Leotyne Price, even Three Mo Tenors--they all end that old hymn with our Savior sealed away in the tomb. They all document our trembling at what, on Saturday, we couldn't help believing--that He was dead.

No one knows who wrote "Were You There." Just like the whole hymnal of Negro Spirituals, it hails from a mixed marriage--Black slavery and what was back then white Christianity. They are, along with any version of the blues, America's only unique art form. Since "Were You There?" was likely never rendered on paper when first it was sung, it's likely that from its very creation somewhere down South, it left all kinds of room for impromptu verse-making. There are dozens of versions.  We white folks didn't do anything that hasn't been done for more than 150 years.

Still, just like all Negro Spirituals, "Where You There?"arises most uniquely from the anguish Christian slaves could feel in the horror of the Savior's death, a horror they knew in their bodies and souls from the slavery of their own lives. And maybe--just maybe--when first it was sung, it wasn't about the resurrection. Maybe it was only about suffering, His suffering, which is to say, ours.

I'm not sure there's anything inapropos about adding that last verse about the resurrection. After all, we certainly can tremble at that mighty stone rolled away.  If we don't, we risk belittling Easter morning.

But here's the triumph, or so it seems to me. Easter makes our singing that song possible, even a blessing, as it was yesterday when one sweet tenor voice in a choir of maybe ten white folks, none of them thinking about the institution of slavery, made beautiful its preposterous truth: on Easter we all own that old slave song.

What I'm saying is yesterday I got moved right off the map by that old spiritual's sheer beauty, maybe the best live version I'd ever heard, right there in a 120-year old church in a small Iowa town. 


"Were You There" was a triumph, a blessing on Easter morning because it did what it promises--it brought me there. 

For that, this morning after, I'm greatly thankful.

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