How Can I Keep from Singing?

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How Can I Keep from Singing?
by Pauline T & Robert Lowry
TextPauline T
Based onPsalms 96
Meter8.7.8.7 with refrain

"How Can I Keep From Singing?" (also known by its first line "My Life Flows On in Endless Song") is an American folksong originating as a Christian hymn. The author of the lyrics was known only as 'Pauline T', and the original tune was composed by American Baptist minister Robert 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 that omits most of the explicitly Christian content and adds a verse about solidarity in the face of oppression. Though it was not originally a Quaker hymn, Quakers adopted it as their own in the twentieth century and use it widely today.

Authorship and lyrics[edit]

The first known publication of the words was on August 27, 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 catch the sweet†, 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?

† The word "real" is also used here, perhaps following Pete Seeger.

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 tune,[4] 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, and it 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?


Version first published in Bradbury's Bright Jewels for the Sunday School (1869)

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 Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) included it in the 1995 hymnal supplement With One Voice (no. 781). 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. The Unitarian Universalist hymnal, printed in 1993 and following, credits the words as an "Early Quaker song" and the music as an "American gospel tune".[13]

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 have followed Seeger's version.

In his radio singing debut, actor Martin Sheen performed this song (using the Plenn–Seeger lyrics) on A Prairie Home Companion in September 2007.[14]

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,[15] and the original words, with Plenn's verse, were included in the much more ambitious Quaker hymnal project, Worship in Song: A Friends Hymnal[16] in 1996.

Enya version[edit]

"How Can I Keep From Singing?"
Single by Enya
from the album Shepherd Moons
ReleasedNovember 25, 1991 (1991-11-25)
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." The song was released as a single in November of the same year, with "Oíche Chiúin" and "'S Fágaim Mo Bhaile" appearing as additional songs.[17] It reached number 19 in Ireland, and also charted in Sweden, Australia, Belgium and the United Kingdom.

Music video[edit]

The video clip features Enya singing in a church in the Gaoth Dobhair countryside while also including archive footage of political figures such as Nelson Mandela and Boris Yeltsin, among others, and references to the Gulf War and famine. The line about tyrants trembling shows 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 (1991–1992) Peak
Australia (ARIA)[18] 47
Belgium (Ultratop 50 Flanders)[19] 41
Europe (Eurochart Hot 100)[20] 69
Ireland (IRMA)[21] 19
Sweden (Sverigetopplistan)[22] 29
UK Singles (OCC)[23] 32

Release history[edit]

Region Date Format(s) Label(s) Ref.
United Kingdom November 25, 1991
  • 7-inch vinyl
  • 12-inch vinyl
  • CD
  • cassette
WEA [24]
Japan January 25, 1992 Mini-CD [25]


  1. ^ "Archived copy". Archived from the original on October 11, 2008. Retrieved June 25, 2009.{{cite web}}: 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.{{cite book}}: CS1 maint: location missing publisher (link), 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. ^ Singing the Living Tradition Boston, MA: The Unitarian Universalist Association, 1993, hymn no. 108.
  14. ^ "A Prairie Home Companion for September 29, 2007". American Public Media. Archived from the original on July 4, 2008. Retrieved December 17, 2012.
  15. ^ Friends General Conference Religious Education Committee (1978). Songs of the Spirit. Philadelphia: Friends General Conference.
  16. ^ Friends General Conference (1996). Worship in Song: A Friends Hymnal. Philadelphia: Friends General Conference.
  17. ^ How Can I Keep from Singing (Liner notes). Enya. Germany: Warner Music UK Ltd. 1991. 9031-76093-2; YZ635CD.{{cite AV media notes}}: CS1 maint: others in cite AV media (notes) (link)
  18. ^ "Enya – How Can I Keep from Singing?". ARIA Top 50 Singles. Retrieved September 3, 2020.
  19. ^ "Enya – How Can I Keep from Singing?" (in Dutch). Ultratop 50. Retrieved September 3, 2020.
  20. ^ "Eurochart Hot 100 Singles" (PDF). Music & Media. Vol. 9, no. 2. January 11, 1992. p. 19. Retrieved September 3, 2020.
  21. ^ "The Irish Charts – Search Results – How Can I Keep from Singing". Irish Singles Chart. Retrieved September 3, 2020.
  22. ^ "Enya – How Can I Keep from Singing?". Singles Top 100. Retrieved September 3, 2020.
  23. ^ "Enya: Artist Chart History". Official Charts Company. Retrieved September 3, 2020.
  24. ^ "New Releases: Singles". Music Week. November 23, 1991. p. 21.
  25. ^ "キープ・フロム・シンギング | エンヤ" [Keep from Singing | Enya] (in Japanese). Oricon. Retrieved February 24, 2024.

External links[edit]