How Can I Keep from Singing?

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How Can I Keep from Singing?
by Robert Wadsworth Lowry
Robert Lowry.JPG
Robert Lowry
Based onPsalm 145
Meter8.7.8.7 with refrain

"How Can I Keep From Singing?" (also known by its incipit "My Life Flows On in Endless Song") is a Christian hymn with music written by American Baptist minister Robert Wadsworth Lowry. The song is frequently, though erroneously, cited as a traditional Quaker or Shaker hymn. The original composition has now entered into the public domain, and appears in several hymnals and song collections, both in its original form and with a revised text. Though it is not, in fact, a Quaker hymn, twentieth-century Quakers adopted it as their own and use it widely today.

Authorship and lyrics[edit]

The first known publication of the words was on August 7, 1868, in The New York Observer, Titled "Always Rejoicing", and, attributed to "Pauline T.",[1][2] the text reads:

My life flows on in endless song;
Above earth's lamentation,
I hear the sweetdagger, tho' far-off hymn
That hails a new creation;
Thro' all the tumult and the strife
I hear the music ringing;
It finds an echo in my soul—
How can I keep from singing?
What tho' my joys and comforts die?
The Lord my Saviour liveth;
What tho' the darkness gather round?
Songs in the night he giveth.
No storm can shake my inmost calm
While to that refuge clinging;
Since Christ is Lord of heaven and earth,
How can I keep from singing?
I lift my eyes; the cloud grows thin;
I see the blue above it;
And day by day this pathway smooths,
Since first I learned to love it,
The peace of Christ makes fresh my heart,
A fountain ever springing;
All things are mine since I am his—
How can I keep from singing?

dagger The word "real" is also used[by whom?] here.

These are the words as published by Robert Lowry in the 1869 song book, Bright Jewels for the Sunday School.[3] Here Lowry claims credit for the music, an iambic 87 87 tune[4] with an 87 87 refrain, but gives no indication as to who wrote the words. These words were also published in a British periodical in 1869, The Christian Pioneer,[5] but no author is indicated. Lewis Hartsough, citing Bright Jewels as source of the lyrics and crediting Lowry for the tune, included "How Can I Keep from Singing?" in the 1872 edition of the Revivalist.[6] Ira D. Sankey published his own setting of the words in Gospel Hymns, No. 3 (1878), writing that the words were anonymous.[7] In 1888, Henry S. Burrage listed this hymn as one of those for which Lowry had written the music, but not the lyrics.[8]

Doris Plenn learned the original hymn from her grandmother, who reportedly believed that it dated from the early days of the Quaker movement. Plenn contributed the following verse around 1950, which was taken up by Pete Seeger and other folk revivalists:[2]

When tyrants tremble, sick with 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 go winging;
When friends by shame are undefiled,
How can I keep from singing?


During the 20th century, this hymn was not widely used in congregational worship. Diehl's index to a large number of hymnals from 1900 to 1966 indicates that only one hymnal included it: the 1941 edition of The Church Hymnal of the Seventh-day Adventist Church, titled "My Life Flows On" (hymn no. 265).[9][10] It was also published in the earlier 1908 Seventh-day Adventist hymnal, Christ In Song, under the title "How Can I Keep From Singing?" (hymn no. 331).[11] The United Methodist Church published it in its 2000 hymnal supplement, The Faith We Sing (hymn no. 2212), giving credit for the lyrics as well as the tune to Robert Lowry.[12] The Faith We Sing version changes some of the lyrics and punctuation from the 1868 version. It was also included in the Unitarian Universalist hymnal, printed in 1993 and following.[citation needed]

Pete Seeger learned a version of this song from Doris Plenn, a family friend, who had it from her North Carolina family. His version made this song fairly well known in the folk revival of the 1960s. Seeger's version omits or modifies much of the Christian wording of the original, and adds Plenn's verse above. The reference in the added verse intended by Seeger and by Plenn—both active in left-wing causes—is to 'witch hunts' of the House Un-American Activities Committee. (Seeger himself was sentenced to a year in jail in 1955 as a result of his testimony before the Committee, which he did not serve due to a technicality.)[vague][citation needed] Most folk singers, including Enya, have followed Seeger's version.

In the late 1970s and early 80s, How Can I Keep From Singing was recorded by Catholic Folk musician Ed Gutfreund (on an album called "From An Indirect Love"); the music was published in a widely used Catholic Hymnal called "Glory and Praise"; it was popular among Catholic liturgical music ministers, especially those who used guitar. In this,[vague] and in a 1993 recording by Marty Haugen, Jeanne Cotter, and David Haas, the quatrain beginning: "No storm can shake my inmost calm ..." is used as a repeated refrain.

It is also sung by Dahlia Malloy (Minnie Driver) in the episode 'Virgin Territory' from Season One of FX's The Riches.

In his radio singing debut, actor Martin Sheen performed this song (using the Plenn–Seeger lyrics) on A Prairie Home Companion in September 2007.[13]

It has been used on the 2009 Christmas advertisement for the UK supermarket, Waitrose, in a performance by Camilla Kerslake.

Contemporary Christian artist Chris Tomlin clearly was inspired by the song when he wrote his song, "How Can I Keep from Singing" in 2006.[citation needed]

Use by Quakers[edit]

The song has often been attributed to "early" Quakers, but Quakers did not permit congregational singing in worship until after the American Civil War (and many still do not have music regularly). But learning it in social activist circles of the fifties and hearing Seeger's (erroneous) attribution endeared the song to many contemporary Quakers, who have adopted it as a sort of anthem. It was published in the Quaker songbook Songs of the Spirit,[14] and the original words, with Plenn's verse, were included in the much more ambitious Quaker hymnal project, Worship in Song: A Friends Hymnal[15] in 1996.

Enya version[edit]

"How Can I Keep From Singing?"
Single by Enya
from the album Shepherd Moons
  • 'S Fágaim Mo Bhaile
  • Oíche Chiúin (Silent Night)
Songwriter(s)Robert Wadsworth Lowry
Producer(s)Nicky Ryan
Enya singles chronology
"Caribbean Blue"
"How Can I Keep From Singing?"
"Book of Days"
Music video
"How Can I Keep From Singing?" on YouTube

The song received new prominence in 1991 when Irish musician Enya released a recording of the hymn on her album Shepherd Moons. Enya's version follows Pete Seeger's replacement of some more overtly Christian lines, for example: "What tho' my joys and comforts die? The Lord my Saviour liveth" became "What tho' the tempest 'round me roars, I hear the truth it liveth."

Enya and her record company were sued for copyright infringement by Sanga Music, Inc. for recording the song because she had mistakenly credited this track as a "traditional Shaker hymn", thus assumed it as public domain. Pete Seeger had helped make the song fairly well known in the 1950s by publishing it with Doris Plenn's additional third verse in his folk music magazine Sing Out! (Vol. 7, No 1. 1957), recording it, and mistakenly credited it as a "traditional Quaker hymn" without copyrighting Plenn's verse, thus presenting the entire song as "public domain". It was again published by Sanga Music, Inc. in 1964. Seeger had presented the new verse as being public domain and Plenn had only wanted the song to be preserved rather than seeking to make a profit from it, so the court decided that Enya could use the verse without paying royalties.[16]

The song was also released as a single in November of the same year, with "Oíche Chiún" and "'S Fágaim Mo Bhaile" appearing as additional songs.[citation needed]

The videoclip featured Enya singing in a church in the Gaoth Dobhair countryside, while also including archive footage of political figures such as Nelson Mandela or Boris Yeltsin among others, and references to the Gulf War and famine. The line about tyrants trembling showed Gennady Yanayev, leader of the 1991 August Coup, in a press conference with visibly trembling hands—apparently toward the end when the coup was unraveling.


Chart (1991) Peak
Australian ARIA Singles Chart 47
Irish Singles Chart[17] 19
Swedish Singles Chart 26
UK Singles Chart 32


  1. ^ "Archived copy". Archived from the original on October 11, 2008. Retrieved June 25, 2009.CS1 maint: archived copy as title (link)
  2. ^ a b song history - How Can I Keep From Singing Archived March 6, 2012, at the Wayback Machine. Retrieved on November 23, 2011.
  3. ^ Robert Lowry, ed. Bright Jewels for the Sunday School. New York: Biglow and Main, 1869, hymn number 16.
  4. ^ Hymn 143, "How Can I Keep from Singing?" in Celebrating the Eucharist: Classic Edition, April 17, 2016 – August 13, 2016, Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, p. 404, ISBN 978-0-81462-728-0 .
  5. ^ The Christian Pioneer, a monthly magazine. Vol 23, page 39, London: Simpkin, Marshall & Co., 1866.
  6. ^ Hillman, Joseph; Hartsough, Lewis, eds. (1872). The revivalist: A collection of choice revival hymns and tunes. Troy, New York. p. 305., No. 586. The 1872 edition had 336 pages including revised and enlarged indexes but was otherwise similar in appearance to the 1868 and 1869 editions.
  7. ^ Ira D. Sankey, Gospel hymns no. 3, New York: Biglow & Main, 1878, hymn no. 66
  8. ^ Burrage, Henry S. Baptist Hymn Writers and Their Hymns. Portland, Maine: Brown, Thurston & Co., 1888, p. 433.
  9. ^ Takoma Park MD: Review and Herald Publishing Assn
  10. ^ Diehl, Katharine Smith (1996). Hymns and Tunes—An Index. New York: Scarecrow Press.
  11. ^ Washington DC: Review and Herald Publishing Association. Facsimile reproduction.
  12. ^ HIckman, Hoyt L., ed. The Faith We Sing. Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 2000, hymn no. 2212.
  13. ^ "A Prairie Home Companion for September 29, 2007". American Public Media. Retrieved December 17, 2012.
  14. ^ Friends General Conference Religious Education Committee (1978). Songs of the Spirit. Philadelphia: Friends General Conference.
  15. ^ Friends General Conference (1996). Worship in Song: A Friends Hymnal. Philadelphia: Friends General Conference.
  16. ^ Fishman, Stephen. "Copyright and the Public Domain" (PDF). ALM. p. 6-6. Retrieved May 20, 2017.
  17. ^ Irish Single Chart Archived June 3, 2009, at WebCite (Retrieved April 10, 2008)

External links[edit]