Or only possibly a Quaker hymn –some unsure provenance here, but I like that idea. And let me say too that any song which Pete Seeger chose to weave into his repertoire is fine by me.
Graham and I were ‘jamming’ around the piano the other night, as we sometimes do, flicking through the pages of some hymn book or another, and came across this which I think was sort of familiar to us both somewhere in the background of our brains, but we’d not noticed it in a book before. Yes, definitely the background, because even though I knew I had heard this song in different versions through different singers, and could generally sing along to it, it hadn’t really featured as something I should use regularly or commit to memory. Rather late in the day, I want to redress this and drag it right into the light! It’s a great song!
The particular flavour of this song is an irrepressible note of celebration transcending the sorrows and difficulties of the world. It’s there, like a bold affirmation of unquenchable joy, right in the first couple of lines – ‘My life flows on in endless song/ Above earth’s lamentations’.. In its earliest versions, appearing in 19th century American hymn books, the motivation and underlying strength for this strain of joy is unequivocally Christian – ‘What though my joys and comfort die?/ The Lord my Saviour liveth’ and ‘since Christ is Lord of heaven and earth…’ and ‘the peace of Christ makes fresh my heart..’. But here’s the thing: something of the driving impetus of this song –a victory of light over dark, the discerned strand of hope and newness at the very heart of creation’s rhythms –perhaps has a universal resonance. And I have a feeling that this is a song which my humanist friends can also join in with, and will want to, if tweaked a little to remove overt theistic references. Well, this brings us to Pete Seeger’s version.
Interestingly, what he has done I think is to add a whole new tone or a different dimension to the very question ‘How can I keep from singing?’ In his version the question is not the celebratory proclamation of Christ’s ultimate victory over sin, sorrow and death; it is not even just that expression of an unstoppable joie de vivre which even ‘tumult and strife’ and ‘gathering darkness’ can’t overcome. He seems to have added another verse to the song, or at least he has found and incorporated a verse written by someone with the same sense of political conscience and activism as himself. ‘When tyrants tremble, sick with fear/ And hear their death-knell ringing..’ In the context of most of Seeger’s active musical career, this time the question is a shout of victory over oppressive regimes which must meet with inevitable overthrow. There’s more: ‘When friends rejoice both far and near…/ In prison cell and dungeon vile, / Our thoughts to them go winging/ When friends by shame are undefiled,/ How can I keep from singing?’ Now the song’s focal question sounds like a compulsion, fulfilling a responsibility of solidarity with those suffering the injustices of persecution and imprisonment –prisoners of conscience, protesters (‘undefiled’ because they have nothing to feel ashamed of) making a stand for compassion and human rights. It’s a song he might well have used as a fearless victory-proclamation during the civil rights protests, for instance.
If indeed the song did start life as an early Quaker hymn, its more modern incarnations will also strike a chord with today’s Quakers. Not that I know many, but I got talking to one at (strangely enough) a Peggy Seeger concert a couple of years back. We shared good solid common ground on the music, on the joy of life, on a sense of social justice, and on (much) talk of peace – but he was less comfortable with Jesus-references, or with God-talk generally, and gave me to understand that most Quakers he knew would probably be of a similar persuasion. I couldn’t help feeling that it was a long way from George Fox. Not judging, just saying.
So anyway, we can all join in this fabulous song in one form or another, if we want to. I am rather taken by this clip on youTube of the folk group from the Notre Dame Catholic University somewhere in Australia. Friends even more cynical than me might say they all look a bit too fresh faced and young to be taken seriously, but I love what they do with this song – and I note that they too have chosen the more ‘inclusive’ ‘Since Love is lord of heaven and earth’ , and they have made the four lines in which that appears into the song’s repeated ‘chorus’ –which works really well. So ‘more inclusive’ it might be, but the tone of their performance can’t help but give the song the sense of a clear and vigorous Christian affirmation!
If I hadn’t had already filled the bill with previously chosen ‘requests’ this would be a humdinger of a song to add to the funeral anthems, wouldn’t it? Meanwhile, let’s give it a good run for its money, while we’re still around.