Were You There

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Sheet music for Were You There

"Were You There (When They Crucified My Lord)" is an American spiritual that was first printed in 1899.

There are some of the more recent plantation hymns which have added an element of culture without diminishing religious fervor. One of the best of these is "Were You There When They Crucified My Lord?" It dwells on the details of the crucifixion, and the separate stanzas add only a single line each to the song. It is a tender and beautiful hymn, the climax of its effect depending largely on the hold and slur on the exclamation "Oh!" with which the third line begins, and the repetition and expression of the word "tremble! tremble! tremble!"

—William Eleazar Barton, Old Plantation Hymns (1899)

"Were You There" was likely composed by enslaved African-Americans in the 19th century.[1] It was first published in William Eleazar Barton's 1899 Old Plantation Hymns.[1] In 1940, it was included in the Episcopal Church hymnal, making it the first spiritual to be included in any major American hymnal.[2] As reported in Howard Thurman's autobiography, the song was one of Mahatma Gandhi's favorites.[3] The song has been recorded by artists including Paul Robeson,[4] Marion Williams,[5] Johnny Cash,[6] Roy Acuff,[7] Phil Keaggy,[8] Max Roach,[9] Diamanda Galás,[10] Harry Belafonte,[11] The Seldom Scene,[12] Diamond Version (with Neil Tennant),[13] Bayard Rustin,[14] Rajaton,[15] and Chris Rice.[16] A critic from the Indianapolis News wrote about Paul Robeson's rendition of "Were You There", saying that "It was as startling and vivid a disclosure of reverent feeling of penetrating pathos as one could imagine."[17]

Lyrics[edit]

The following lyrics are those printed in the 1899 Unicorn. Old Plantation Hymns;[18] other variations exist.

Were you there when they crucified my Lord? (Were you there?)
Were you there when they crucified my Lord?
O sometimes it causes me to tremble! tremble! tremble!
Were you there when they crucified my Lord?

Were you there when they nail'd him to the cross? (Were you there?)
Were you there when they nail'd him to the cross?
O sometimes it causes me to tremble! tremble! tremble!
Were you there when they nail'd him to the cross?

Were you there when they pierced him in the side? (Were you there?)
Were you there when they pierced him in the side?
O sometimes it causes me to tremble! tremble! tremble!
Were you there when they pierced him in the side?

Were you there when the sun refused to shine? (Were you there?)
Were you there when the sun refused to shine?
O sometimes it causes me to tremble! tremble! tremble!
Were you there when the sun refused to shine?

Lyrical analysis[edit]

“Were You There” utilizes a system of coded language in its lyrics like most, if not all, African-American spirituals.[19] Metaphors, especially those involving Old Testament figures, as well as Jesus, are often central to the meanings of spirituals.[20] “Were You There” tells the story of the Crucifixion of Jesus. Underneath this narrative, however, is a metaphor likening Jesus's suffering to the suffering of slaves.[citation needed]
In some versions of the song, the singer asks “Were you there when they nailed Him to the Tree?” Replacing Jesus’ cross with a tree further strengthens the metaphor between Jesus’ suffering and slaves’ suffering.[citation needed] African-Americans during the antebellum period, and all the way into the Jim Crow era, would have drawn a connection between Jesus nailed to a tree and the frightening prevalence of lynchings in their own lives.[19]
This expression of likening one's experience to Jesus' is underscored by the first-person, present-tense perspective of “Were You There”; the singer personally witnesses the crucifixion.[citation needed] The use of first person pronouns in the spiritual reflects a sense of “communal selfhood” formed by African-American slaves in the face of oppression[citation needed] It should also be noted that this particular hymn and the use of the first person perspective reflects the Christian principle that all of humanity, past, present and future bears the responsibility for their complicity in sin that resulted in the Crucifixion of Jesus Christ.[citation needed]
From a lyrical analysis standpoint, the author may have been asking the question in a literal sense, implying that the event should be remembered as if the listener were physically present.[20]

References[edit]

  1. ^ a b Raymond F. Glover (1990). The Hymnal 1982 Companion. Church Publishing. p. 349. ISBN 978-0-89869-143-6.
  2. ^ LindaJo H. McKim (1993). The Presbyterian Hymnal Companion. Westminster John Knox Press. p. 91. ISBN 978-0-664-25180-2.
  3. ^ Howard Thurman (1981). With Head and Heart: The Autobiography of Howard Thurman. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. ISBN 0-547-54678-5.
  4. ^ Paul Robeson (2008). "Were you there?". Warner Classics.
  5. ^ Ron Wynn. "Can't Keep It to Myself - Marion Williams | Songs, Reviews, Credits". AllMusic. Retrieved 2017-03-05.
  6. ^ "The Man in Black: 1959-1962 - Johnny Cash | Songs, Reviews, Credits". AllMusic. Retrieved 2017-03-05.
  7. ^ "Praguefrank's Country Music Discographies, Roy Acuff, part 1". Praguefrank. Retrieved 29 March 2021.
  8. ^ "Christ His Passion: Remembering the Sacrifice - Various Artists | Songs, Reviews, Credits". AllMusic. 2004-03-09. Retrieved 2017-03-05.
  9. ^ Vincent Thomas. "Lift Every Voice and Sing - Max Roach | Songs, Reviews, Credits". AllMusic. Retrieved 2017-03-05.
  10. ^ Brian Olewnick. "The Singer - Diamanda Galás | Songs, Reviews, Credits". AllMusic. Retrieved 2017-03-05.
  11. ^ "Harry Belafonte: My Lord What a Mornin'". AllMusic. Retrieved 2017-03-05.
  12. ^ "Scenic Roots - The Seldom Scene | Songs, Reviews, Credits". AllMusic. Retrieved 2017-03-05.
  13. ^ "MUTE • Diamond Version • Release new album 'CI' on 2/3 June + Listen to first track 'Were You There' feat Neil Tennant". Mute.com. 2014-06-03. Retrieved 2017-03-05.
  14. ^ Bayard Rustin sings a program of spirituals: with scripture reading by James Farmer. (Musical LP, 1950s). 2017-01-20. OCLC 61832618.
  15. ^ "Record Reviews, Streaming Songs, Genres & Bands". AllMusic. Retrieved 2017-03-05.
  16. ^ "Untitled Hymn: A Collection of Hymns - Chris Rice | Songs, Reviews, Credits". AllMusic. Retrieved 2020-02-08.{{cite web}}: CS1 maint: url-status (link)
  17. ^ Olwage, G (2015). "Listening B(l)ack: Paul Robeson After Roland Hayes". Journal of Musicology. 32 (4): 524–557. doi:10.1525/jm.2015.32.4.524.
  18. ^ William Eleazar Barton (1899). Old Plantation Hymns: A Collection of Hitherto Unpublished Melodies of the Slave and the Freedman, with Historical and Descriptive Notes. Lamson, Wolffe. p. 40.
  19. ^ a b Darden, Bob (2004). People get ready! : a new history of Black gospel music. Continuum. pp. 78–889. ISBN 9780826414366.
  20. ^ a b Ramey, L (2002). "The theology of the lyric tradition in African American spirituals". Journal of the American Academy of Religion. 70 (2): 347–363. doi:10.1093/jaar/70.2.347.

External links[edit]