Work Songs

My topic in this brief essay is work songs, that is, songs sung as accompaniment to work rather than songs about work. My main thesis is that such songs are a gratuitous and creative excess in which the song enhances the work and the work enhances the song.

The manual labor that work songs accompany can be performed without the songs: spinners can spin and rowers can row without singing. Sometimes the singing establishes a rhythm that is essential for coordinated activity; but there are other ways to establish a rhythm for the work than by singing. From the standpoint of getting the work done, the singing is unnecessary. It’s an excess. Except for those cases in which some overseer orders the workers to sing, it’s a gratuitous excess.

Just as the work can be done without the singing, so too the singing can be done without the work; that happens when work songs are performed in concert. With respect to the work, the singing is an excess; with respect to the singing, the work is an excess.

The situation is not entirely symmetrical, however. The work is already there; the singing is not. Singing is introduced to accompany the work; seldom is work introduced to accompany the singing. In the term work songs, the word work is the modifier and the word songs is the substantive. Our terminology would better reflect the reality of things if we spoke of sung work.

I said of the singing that it accompanies the work; I might also have said of the work that it accompanies the singing. In each case, however, the word accompany is misleading. It suggests mere simultaneity. The singing and the working do, of course, occur simultaneously; but their relation goes beyond that. It’s integral. When workers sing while working, they create an entity of a different genre. There is now neither ordinary work nor ordinary singing but sung work, an entity of a new genre in which the singing and the working coinhere — to borrow a term from theology of the Trinity. In his fine book Work Songs, the music historian Ted Gioia remarks, “The work of the poorest laborer is still a process of creating and of making something where before there was nothing.”[1] Singing while working is a manifestation of human creativity; the gratuitous excess represented by sung work is a creative excess.

In situations of labor under duress, this creative excess is the manifestation of a spirit that refuses to be crushed, refuses to be reduced to a mere hoer of cotton or splitter of rocks. By singing, the workers manifest an indomitable sense of their ineradicable dignity. One can see why overseers in prisons sometimes refused to allow the laborers to sing.[2] They wanted to crush the spirit of the prisoners, but the singing was an indication that they had not succeeded. Prison Songs is a recording made by Alan Lomax in 1947–48 of songs sung by prisoners in the Parchman Farm prison in Mississippi.[3] In 1996 a researcher played it for a group of ex-prisoners living in the South Bronx and asked them what they thought. One said, “You’re trying to save your sanity…. You’d lose your spirit if you didn’t sing.” Another said, the songs are a manifestation of the

will of the human spirit. That will is something within me. It says that I have something that I can do to get myself out of this, too, or get through this day, or cope with tomorrow, and not just lay back and hope that someone else will come to my rescue. So I think these songs have a great value, a great lesson: the will of the human spirit — the will to survive and go on, no matter what, and in spite of everything.[4]

If the singing and the labor are to coinhere, the singing has to fit the work. Thus it is that

the work song follows musical rules of its own, far distant from the cultural and formal considerations that hold sway in virtually all other types of performance art. Indeed, in almost every regard the work song defies our conception of an “artistic performance.” Its pace can be repetitive and predictable; often it strives to achieve effects that, in other settings, would be dismissed as merely monotonous…. The rhythms are typically slower than most other types of traditional songs, sometimes positively sluggish.[5]

The demands of physical labor typically require a measured approach — what one might call the “work song law of conservation of energy.” Pacing is critical, and the song leader is responsible for seeing that the workers do not exhaust themselves in their efforts but rather can continue to the end of day.[6]

Not only must the tempo of the song fit the tempo of the work, but the rhythm of the song must fit the rhythm of the work. In case the work has no inherent rhythm, the rhythm of the song has to be a rhythm that can be imposed on the work. For some types of work it was important, or even indispensable, that the actions of the individual workers be synchronized; in those cases, the singing had to have a rhythm that could serve that function. Track 2 on Prison Songs, “No More, My Lord,” and track 13, “Early in the Mornin’,” are fascinating examples of this. Both are sung to the action of chopping wood; in both cases, not only does the rhythm of the singing establish a rhythm for the swinging of the axes, but the ringing percussive sound of the axe-blows is an integral element of the music. “Many compelling recordings of work songs would be deprived of their vitality if the sound of the tools were taken away.”[7]

If the song is to fit the work, the expressive character of the song must also fit the nature of the work and fit the mood typical of those who perform the work. Writing about the music of African tribes, the ethnomusicologist Rose Brandel observes that these peoples do “not deliberately project the ‘work music’ upon the scene in the manner of modern factory psychologists. Rather, the music seems to be an expressive outgrowth of the labor itself.”[8]

Those who sang while working obviously found their new creation, sung work, to be more gratifying than the same work done without singing; that’s why they sang. What was it about this new entity that they found more gratifying? When Lomax asked Bama, an inmate in the Parchman Farm, why he and his fellows sang, Bama said, singing makes the work “go so better.”[9] Singing changed the work for the better; singing enhanced the work. The same thing can be said about the effect of the work on the singing. The work changes the singing for the better, enhances it. About sea shanties Gioia says:

Cut off from the activities that gave it meaning, the shanty has become just another song. This transition can only be lamented, for the work-a-day circumstances that gave birth to the shanty also imparted the rough-and-ready beauty that made them so inspirational and this charm all but disappears when the music is brought inside the concert hall or recording studio.[10]

Let’s set off to the side the enhancement of the singing effected by its combination with the work and reflect on the enhancement of the work effected by its combination with the singing. What was it about sung work that made the work “go so better”? We have already noted one of the ways in which the singing made the work go better: the rhythm of the singing coordinated the activity of the individual laborers. And often the singing energized the workers. In Gioia’s words, the songs “impart vitality and energy to an undertaking.”[11] When accompanied by singing, tasks “have a stronger and more insistent force of momentum behind them.”[12] In addition to enhancing the work, the singing enhanced the workers’ experience of the work. It reinforced their sense of being engaged in a common project: they were in it together. The creative excess of the singing blurred the distinction between work and play by introducing a dimension of play into the work. In these ways, singing enhanced the experience of the work whether or not the work was pleasant.

It was especially when the work was unpleasant, however, that singing was important. Much of the work that human beings have performed while singing is tedious, and the singing alleviates the tedium. I quoted three words from what Bama said to Lomax when Lomax asked him why he and his fellows sang while working. Here is more of what Bama said:

When you singin’, you forgit, you see, and the time just pass on ‘way; but if you just get your mind devoted on one something, it look like it will be hard for you to make it, see, make a day. The day be longer, look like. So to keep his mind from being devoted on just one thing, why he’ll practically take up singin’, see.[13]

What was it about sung work that made it more gratifying? My answer thus far has taken its cue from the comment made by Bama that singing makes the work “go so better.” Singing enhances the work and the workers’ experience by coordinating the activity of the workers, energizing them, and taking their mind off the work. These are functional considerations, beneficial effects of the singing on the work. Gioia doubts that such functional considerations exhaust the matter, and I think he is right. His guess and mine is that the workers often found their expression of creativity intrinsically good and not just instrumentally good. They sang for the sheer joy of creating sung work. Sung work was an end in itself for them, just as absorbed attention to a work of art may be an end in itself for others.

It would be impossible to describe everything about sung work that would have made the workers want to do it for the joy of it. But one thing that would have made it joyful was the solidarity that they would have experienced. They would have experienced the solidarity of jointly expressing the sentiments in the words of the songs. They would also have experienced the solidarity inherent in group singing: each singer adjusts his singing to the singing of his fellows.

Gioia describes well an important additional aspect of the “meaning” of work songs:

[The work song] is a musical “genre” that is much more than a genre because it emerges as a transformational tool. Even more striking, this source of transcendence was reserved as a special support for those on the lowest rungs of the socioeconomic ladder — the most oppressed laborer and even the slave or prisoner. When all else was taken away, it remained inalienable. Members of the leisure class, representatives of the ruling powers, were all but excluded from tapping into its power. The nature of this social role — so strange and amorphous, yet so tightly defined — adds to the rich complexity of this body of music.[14]

The enhancement of work by singing is just one example of what is perhaps the most common of all the many ways in which the arts enter into our lives: the arts enhance our activities and enhance our experience. Consider hymns. Work songs are close to disappearing from the modern world; hymns are not.

Worshipers can praise God in spoken prose; sometimes they do. With respect to the action of praising God, singing is an excess. The excess does not merely coexist with the praising, however. The singing and the praising join together to create an entity of a new genre: sung praise. In this new entity, the singing and the praising coinhere. This new entity enhances the praise. Praise is work, of a sort; sung praise is sung work.


Nicholas Wolterstorff is Noah Porter Professor Emeritus of Philosophical Theology at Yale University, and Senior Research Fellow in the Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture, University of Virginia. Among his publications are Art in Action (Eerdmans, 1980), Works and Worlds of Art (Oxford, 1980), Justice: Rights and Wrongs (Princeton 2008), Justice in Love (Eerdmans 2011), and Hearing the Call: Liturgy, Justice, Church, and World (Eerdmans, 2011). Art Rethought is forthcoming from Oxford University Press (2015). He has been President of the American Philosophical Association (Central Division) and President of the Society of Christian Philosophers. He is a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.



[1] Ted Gioia, Work Songs (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2006), p. 257

[2] See Gioia, p. 207.

[3] The full title of the CD is Prison Songs: Historical Recordings from Parchman Farm 1947-48. Volume One: Murderous Home. The CD is available as Rounder CD 1714.

[4] These comments are to be found in the booklet accompanying the CD.

[5] Ibid., 60–61.

[6] Ibid., 154.

[7] Ibid., 155.

[8] Quoted in Gioia, p. 56.

[9] The comment is to be found in the booklet accompanying the CD Prison Songs.

[10] Ibid., 136.

[11] Ibid., 178.

[12] Ibid., 178.

[13] From the booklet accompanying the CD Prison Songs.

[14] Ibid., 260.


This article is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0  License.

Recommended Citation: Wolterstorff, Nicholas (2014) “Work Songs,” The Yale ISM Review: Vol. 1: No. 1, Article 8.
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Sacred Folk Song

Several years ago I was privileged to speak at length with William L. Dawson (now deceased), the world-renowned African American composer and arranger of Negro spirituals and former director of the celebrated Tuskegee Institute Choir. He asked me to define a “spiritual.” Completely intimidated, I attempted to put a few feeble words together as if I were composing an entry for the New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, to which he responded, “That’s too many words that aren’t saying anything!” He finally answered, “The spiritual is simply a sacred folk song created by the people.”

The answer was simple but not simplistic. After hearing Mr. Dawson’s definition, I began to reflect on all the sacred folk songs to which I had been exposed in the African American tradition. How were these songs produced? What characteristics did they have in common? I observed that they were created by an individual or individuals of a particular group and adopted by that group for singing that both reflects and communicates the system that produced them. They faithfully convey popular sentiments and beliefs. They express deep emotions. They reflect religious or secular experiences or attitudes. But, most importantly, they were created by the people — the folks — not by skilled composers and trained musicians.

In Deep River and The Negro Spiritual Speaks of Life and Death, Howard Thurman observed that within the Negro spiritual “is the secret of [the enslaved’s] ascendency over circumstances and the basis of their assurance concerning life and death.”[1] In Folk Songs of the American Negro, John W. Work III asserts that African American songs are “full of Scripture, quoted and implied,” because for centuries — if reading was permitted at all — the Bible was usually the only book the enslaved were allowed to “study.”[2]

Wendell P. Whalum affirmed that “The serious sacred music of the oral tradition is primarily individual-to-group music. It begins with the individual but is made into final composition, finished and polished by the group…. An individual contributed a musical ‘thought,’ and the group worked it over and over, reshaping phrases, adding and subtracting notes, filling in melodic gaps, adjusting harmony and rhythm. Many spirituals died when they failed to do what the group intended them to do.”[3]  I recall on many occasions hearing Dr. Whalum say that “spirituals can be learned in two minutes or less if it’s a real spiritual.” Whalum’s statement is best illustrated in his arrangements entitled “Three Congregational Folk Spirituals”: “Leaning On The Lord,” “Four and Twenty Elders,” and “Fare Ye Well.”

Zora Neale Hurston provides support for Whalum’s claim in her classic The Sanctified Church as she differentiates and distinguishes between what she refers to as “neo-spirituals” (concert or arranged spirituals) and the “genuine spiritual” (or folk spiritual).

To begin with, Negro spirituals are not solo or quartette [sic] material. The jagged harmony is what makes it, and it ceases to be what it was when this is absent. Neither can any group be trained to produce it. Its truth dies under training like flowers under hot water. The harmony of the true spiritual is not regular. The dissonances are important and not to be ironed out by the trained musician. The various parts break in at any old time. Falsetto often takes the place of regular voices for short periods. Keys change. Moreover, each singing of the piece is a new creation. The congregation is bound by no rules. No two time singing is alike, so that we must consider the rendition of a song not a final thing, but a mood. It won’t be the same thing next Sunday.

Negro song to be heard truly must be sung by a group, and a group bent on expression of feelings and not on sound effects….The real Negro singer cares nothing about pitch. The first note just bursts out and the rest of the church join in — fired by the same inner urge. Every man trying to express himself through song. Every man for himself. Hence the harmony and disharmony, the shifting of keys and broken time that make up the spiritual.[4]

In his collection Spirits that Dwell in Deep Woods: Prayer and Praise Songs of the Black Religious Experience, Wyatt Tee Walker introduces twenty-four songs that he identifies as “spin-offs of the early hymn-book era in Black religious life (c. 1885–1925).”  He contends that “Like the spirituals, in this respect, these have no identifiable authors. The body of this music expresses in individual form the collective consciousness of the community in matters of religious belief. There is in this music the flavor of both spiritual and Black Meter Music without any real loss of its own identity.”[5] Some of the most familiar songs in this collection that continue to be sung in many Black churches today include “Glory, Glory! Hallelujah!,” “Jesus is a Rock in a Weary Land,” “Jesus on the Main Line,” “Something on the Inside Working on the Outside,” and “You Can’t Make Me Doubt Him.”

In a 1981 lecture at the Hampton University Ministers’ and Musicians’ Conference, Dr. Whalum strongly advocated bringing the folk spiritual back into our worship services as congregational music. He maintained that spirituals could be used not only in prayer meetings and mid-week services but also as functional music for the Christian Year. He affirmed “When Blacks sing spirituals, they are singing them from their roots. They are singing them from an inner feeling, a kind of outward manifestation of an inner-living essence, feeling something very deeply. Blacks have not, as a rule…been afraid to enjoy their music. They have not been afraid to let it relate to something in their own lives and to recognize it as a good remedy for something in someone else’s life.”[6]

In many instances, sacred folk songs have been dismissed or overlooked because they were not seen as “serious” or “art music” and therefore were thought to have no place in divine worship. It has often been assumed that there could be little or no biblical foundation or theological grounding in these “simple little songs.” I strongly argue to the contrary. These sacred folk songs are biblically based, theologically astute, culturally relevant, accessible, and provide a tremendous liturgical vehicle for full, conscious, and active participation in worship. They are functional music and can provide musical support and enrichment for various portions of worship such as introits, prayer responses, scripture reading, healing and anointing services, meditation, baptism, Eucharist, reflection, fellowship, and all types of service or ritual music for the Christian year.

Sacred folk songs are created by anonymous individuals or groups of individuals. They lack the musical sophistication of notated music. This does not mean, however, that they are not intelligently conceived. Fortunately, today there are more and more resources that have notated these gems and have been sensitive to the idiomatic characteristics and performance practice of the people producing them. John Blacking once wrote, “In societies where music is not written down, informed and accurate listening is as important and as much a measure of musical ability as is performance, because it is the only means of ensuring continuity of the music tradition. Music is a product of the behavior of human groups, whether formal or informal: it is humanly organized sound.” [7]

Sacred folk songs of various traditions not only enhance the full, conscious, and active participation of the congregation, they also broaden our understanding of all of God’s people and their contexts. Through these songs, “a call to worship can to be sounded, praise can be declared, faith can be confessed, a text from the Bible can be heralded, faith can be confessed, repentance can be invited, a prayer can be offered, and sacrifice can be encouraged.[8]  They should be sung with intensity of conviction that can move the souls of people who feel jaded, empty, and defeated by the deadening oppressions and confusions of life. Sing until the power of the Lord comes down!


James Abbington is associate professor of church music and worship at Candler School of Theology at Emory University. He has been Executive Editor of the African American Church Music Series published by GIA Publications in Chicago for over fifteen years and has published several books, recordings, worship resources and collections for organ and congregational song. His most recent publications are Readings in African American Church Music and Worship, Volume 2, and Singing Our Savior’s Story: A Congregational Song Supplement for the Christian Year (Hymn Texts since 1990).


The resources below are strongly recommended for anyone who wishes to explore further the folks’ sacred song in African American spirituals.

    • Spirits That Dwell in Deep Woods: Prayer and Praise Hymns in the Black Religious Experience by Wyatt Tee Walker, edited by James Abbington (GIA Publications)
    • African American Heritage Hymnal (GIA Publications)
    • Total Praise Hymnal: Songs and Other Worship Resources for Every Generation (GIA Publications)
    • Religious Folk-Songs of the Negro, edited by R. Nathaniel Dett (available through Hampton University Bookstore, Hampton, VA)
    • American Negro Song: 230 Folks Songs and Spirituals, Religious and Secular, edited by John W. Work III (Dover Books on Music)
    • Spirituals Triumphant: Old and New, edited by Edward Boatner and Willa A. Townsend (available through the Sunday School Publishing Board of the National Baptist Convention, USA, Inc., Nashville, TN)
    • Songs of Zion (Nashville: United Methodist Publishing House and Abingdon Press)
    • Slave Songs of the United States: The Classic 1867 Anthology, compiled and edited by William Francis Allen, Charles Pickard Ware, and Lucy McKim Garrison (Pelican Publishing Company)
    • The Books of American Negro Spirituals by James Weldon and J. Rosamond Johnson (Da Capo Press)



[1] Howard Thurman, “The Negro Spiritual Speaks of Life and Death,” in Deep River and The Negro Spiritual Speaks of Life and Death (Richmond, ID: Friends United Press, 1975), 38.

[2] John W. Work III, Folk Songs of the American Negro (New York: Greenwood Press, 1969), 37.

[3] Wendell P. Whalum, “Black Hymnody,” in Readings in African American Church Music and Worship, vol. 1. Edited and compiled by James Abbington. (Chicago: GIA Publications, 2001), 168.

[4] Zora Neale Hurston, The Sanctified Church (Berkeley, CA: Turtle Island Press, 1981), 79–81.

[5] James Abbington, Let the Church Sing On! Reflections on Black Sacred Music (Chicago: GIA Publications, 2009), 35–36.

[6] James Abbington, Let Mt. Zion Rejoice! Music in the African American Church (Valley Forge, PA: Judson Press, 2001), 123.

[7] John Blacking, How Musical is Man? (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1973), 10.

[8] C. Welton Gaddy, The Gift of Worship (Nashville: Broadman, 1992), 155.


This article is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0  License.

Recommended Citation: Abbington, James (2014) “Sacred Folk Song,” The Yale ISM Review: Vol. 1: No. 1, Article 7.
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The Body That Sings

This essay is an edited and abbreviated version of “The Health of the Human Body and Acts of Communal Singing in Worship,” a talk given at the Yale Institute of Sacred Music’s Congregations Project Seminar on June 21, 2014. The theme of the 2014 Congregations Project was “The Human Body and the Body of Christ.”

When I was asked, as a nurse, to offer a workshop for the Congregations Project “on health and wellness as dimensions of the Christian life,” I was told that the theme was embodiment. My mind did not immediately turn to the pages of nursing research on wellness in community, but to my childhood memories of being raised in American Pentecostalism.

Ours was a little church in Southern California, near the birthplace of the movement in Los Angeles. There, at the Azusa Street Mission, Brother Seymour, an African American, preached and founded Pentecostalism.[1] Nurtured by people who had sat under Brother Seymour’s preaching at Azusa Street, our church took great pride in that heritage. Although my memories begin nearly seventy years after the origins of the Pentecostal movement, older people in our church exhorted us to worship in the way that Brother Seymour had taught. We sang, we shouted, we danced, we spoke in tongues, and we were slain in the Spirit; that is, we used the whole of our bodies in worship, and we did it until we were physically worn out. When I hear the words embodiment, Christian life, and community, my mind turns to memories of my childhood church community and its embodied style of worship — a style of worship in which the movements, the voice, and the posture of body were central.

The body, the nurse-researcher in me says, is a singular organism made up of many systems that work together in awesome and mysterious, yet scientifically understandable, ways. Yet, when I think of the body as a philosopher of religion, I think of Paul’s use of the human body as a metaphor in 1 Corinthians 12:12: “For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ” (RSV). Paul goes on to strain the metaphor; but when I focus just on the opening phrase of the sentence that begins verse 13 — “For by one Spirit we were all baptized into one body” — I am able to get past the strain. It suggests that, though we are many, we are baptized into the one commonality of the Christian life. With this commonality in mind I am able to ask, as a nurse, whether there is a relationship between health and wellness as dimensions of the Christian life, and the communal aspect of that life.

Some General Observations

Let me say something general about the extensive literature on religion and health. Harold Koenig offers three major theoretical paths through which religion can contribute to better health:

  • as a complex set of coping methods helping the individual to handle psychological stress and its physiological consequences;
  • as a pro-social force giving the opportunity to give and receive social support;
  • as a method of behavioral control requiring and supporting the individual in avoidance of health-destructive behaviors, such as hazardous drinking, illicit drug use, or excessive eating.[2]

The nurse-researcher in me understands these theoretical paths as paths that the scientist can study, since they involve variables that can be measured. But the worshiper in me, instead of following theoretical paths, asks:

  • Where is the human body in communal acts of worship?
  • Where is the communal body of worshipers?

Medical scientists gain clinical knowledge about human health from observations at the laboratory bench and through the collective statistics of randomized controlled trials in which one group gets an intervention and another group does not. Such trials, however, will not help us when it comes to understanding the human body in communal acts of worship. If one believes that those acts are what faithful Christians do, one cannot in good conscience randomize some Christians to engage in them and others not. We cannot ask faithful people to go into a control arm of an intervention trial and stop being faithful, so the usual methods of gaining clinical knowledge are not available in studying communal acts of worship.

Some researchers, using epidemiological methods such as large population-based surveys, have found some association between religious practice and health. For example, researchers in California have used the 2003 California Health Survey of 41,873 people to ask whether attending worship influenced health behaviors. They found that engagement in healthy lifestyle behaviors significantly increased among those who reported attending worship, compared to those who do not attend worship — for all population groups, including gender, race, and ethnicity.[3] And researchers in Hungary found that practicing religion in that post-Communist country was associated with better mental and physical health.[4] Powerful though these studies are, they still miss the element of the human body in communal acts of worship.

What Happens in Worship

To get a handle on the human body in collective acts of worship, I went looking in the nursing literature and found an article by one of nursing’s intellectual giants, Patricia Benner, which suggests that the human body allows for knowledge that is not sought by epidemiologists and researchers, whether bench or clinical. She says that embodiment allows for perceptual apprehension of our commonly inhabited worlds. Embodiment, that is, allows us to meet one another in a common world (a shared logical space), and it allows us to understand one another through our perceptual apprehension of one another in that common world (of shared logic).[5]

To engage in communal acts of worship is to inhabit a common world. Through our perceptual apprehension of one another through acts of worship, we learn about our bodies and act upon this knowledge to improve human health.

The scholarly literature on communal singing provides insights about such singing as an act of worship. Krause and Hayward investigated the relationship between religious music and health over three years among 1,024 adults of sixty-six years and older. They report on four findings that create a sort of syllogism:

  • people who attend worship services more often reported stronger emotional reactions to religious music;
  • those who were more emotionally involved with religious music were more likely to feel a close sense of connectedness with other people;
  • those who reported feeling more closely connected with others were more hopeful about the future; and
  • those who reported feeling more hopeful about the future were more likely to rate their health more favorably over the three years.[6]

Krause and Hayward did not claim that attending worship services in which there is religious music improves human health. Rather, they said that individuals who attend worship services in which there is religious music rated their health more favorably. These worshipers may have had poor health, and surely, some of them in a sample of this size and age must have had chronic illness, though Krause and Hayward do not tell us. But individuals in this study perceptually apprehended the common world brought on by religious music, and this perceptual apprehension enabled them to come to some collective knowledge of hope, regardless of the clinical facts they may have faced. The many came together as one body and there, in the acts of that common body, knew the hope of their faith which, although they may have had illness, inspired them to think favorably about their health. This was the second step in my process of thinking that we learn about how to improve human health through the communal acts of worship: through faithful worship we learn hope, hope that transcends the reality of the facts of human frailty and illness.

Singing Promotes Well-Being

Krause and Hayward’s focus on religious music sent me on another hunt in the literature, to discover the effect of music on human health. I found what you all may very well already know: singing promotes well-being. Grape and colleagues enrolled eight amateur and eight professional singers in a study using electrocardiograms to study the effect of thirty minutes of singing on singers’ hearts. They took blood samples before and after singing to measure the effect on markers of inflammation and hormones in the blood. Analysis of the electrocardiograms suggested that singing promoted cardio-physiological fitness. This fitness was most evident among the professional singers. However, markers of inflammation decreased after singing among the amateur singers, and the hormone that produces feelings of love and trust, oxytocin, increased among all the singers after singing for thirty minutes. Amateur singers reported increasing joy and elatedness after the thirty minutes of singing, and all singers reported more energy and relaxation.[7]

Singing in communal acts of worship thus can improve our heart function, decrease inflammation in our bodies, and produce a hormone that causes us to bond with each other. During the physiologic act of common singing, through the release of oxytocin, those who sing learn to trust each other. So this was the third step in my process of thinking that we learn about how to improve human health through communal acts of worship: the act of common singing improves our cardiac function, lowers inflammation, and affects our physiology such that we come to love and trust each other. In this common love and trust the many voices become one choir, one community, one body of Christ.

A Physico-Theological Lesson

We Pentecostals had figured it out a long time ago. We sang as one, shouted as one, danced as one, spoke in tongues as one, and let the Spirit overcome us as one. The theme of Christian unity was important for American Pentecostals and John 17:21 was considered a key verse: “That they all may be one, as thou, Father, art in me, and I in thee, that they also may be one in us….” (KJV).[8] Through acts of communal singing our very physiology bears witness to God’s handiwork among us and our oneness as the body of Christ.

Koenig posits religion as a complex set of coping mechanisms, a pro-social force, and a method of behavioral control. But the communal acts of worship are more than that: they open up for worshipers a common world in which we gain knowledge of our oneness. Vickhoff and associates measured the heart rate of singers while humming a single tone, singing a hymn, and then singing a slow mantra.[9] They found that song structure and heart rate variability are connected. When singers sang the same regular song structures in unison, their hearts accelerated and decelerated at the same time — as one. The experiment concluded that the “external and visible joint action” of singing in unison “corresponds to an internal and biological joint action.” [10]

Acts of communal singing may shape our views of our health. They may inspire in us hope that transcends disease and discomfort. They may improve our cardio-physiologic fitness, reduce inflammation in our bodies, and release a hormone that causes us to bond with each other. Most important, however, acts of communal singing in worship create the common world in which we learn the physico-theological lesson of our embodiment: though many, we are the one body of Christ.

Mark Lazenby, an Advanced Oncology Certified Nurse Practitioner, is assistant professor of nursing and core faculty on the Council on Middle East Studies at Yale University.  After he received his M.S.N. from Yale in 2009, he was a Fulbright Scholar at the King Hussein Cancer Center, Amman, Jordan, where he conducted research on the spiritual well-being of Muslims who were in treatment for cancer. He also holds a Ph.D. in philosophy of religion from Boston University. He has ongoing projects on strengthening palliative care nursing in Botswana, and developing a spiritually sensitive palliative care intervention for Muslims who are in treatment for cancer.



[1] Stanley M. Burgess and Eduard M. van der Maas, The New International Dictionary of Pentecostal and Charismatic Movements, revised and expanded ed. (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing House): xxxi.

[2] Harold G.Koenig, “Religion, Spirituality, and Health: The Research and Clinical Implications,” International Scholarly Research Notices Psychiatry (2012): 278730. doi: 10.5402/2012/278730.

[3] Julia T. Caldwell and Lois M. Takahashi, “Does Attending Worship Mitigate Racial/Ethnic Discrimination in Influencing Health Behaviors? Results From an Analysis of the California Health Interview Survey,” Health Education & Behavior, (2014): 406-413.

[4] Barna Konkolÿ Thege,  János Pilling,  András Székely, and Mária S. Kopp, “Relationship Between Religiosity and Health: Evidence from a Post-Communist Country,” International Journal of Behavioral Medicine 20, no. 4 (2013): 477–86.

[5] Patricia Benner, “The Roles of Embodiment, Emotion and Lifeworld for Rationality and Agency in Nursing Practice,” Nursing Philosophy 1, no. 1 (2000): 5–19.

[6] Neal Krause and R. David Hayward, “Religious Music and Health in Late Life: A Longitudinal Investigation,” The International Journal for the Psychology of Religion, 24, no. 1 (2014): 47-63.

[7] Christina Grape, Maria Sandgren, Lars-Olof Hansson, Mats Ericson, and Tores Theorell,“Does Singing Promote Well-Being? An Empirical Study of Professional and Amateur Singers During a Singing Lesson,” Integrative Physiological and Behavioral Science 38, no. 1 (2003): 65–74.

[8] Frank Bartleman, Azusa Street (Plainfield, NJ: Logos International, 1980), xxvi.

[9] Björn Vickhoff, Helge Malmgren, Rickard  Åstrom, Gunnar Nyberg, Seth-Reino Ekström, Mathias Engwall, Johan Snygg, Michael Nilsson, Rebecka Jörnsten, “Music Structure Determines Heart Rate Variability of Singers,” Frontiers in Psychology  4 (2013): 334.

[10] Vickhoff et al., “Music Structure,” 13.



This article is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0  License.

Recommended Citation:Lazenby, Mark (2014) “The Body That Sings,” The Yale ISM Review: Vol. 1: No. 1, Article 6.
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[If I could write a cry]

If I could write a cry

if I could reduce


or maybe raise

all music to a moan


savage unsayable psalm

barb and balm


of my unbreakable heart


Christian Wiman is the author, editor, or translator of nine books, including My Bright Abyss: Meditation of a Modern Believer (2013). His new book of poems, Once in the West, was released in the fall of 2014. His spare, precise poems often explore themes of spiritual faith and doubt. For ten years, he served as editor of Poetry magazine; in 2013 he joined the faculty of Yale Institute of Sacred Music and Yale Divinity School.


This article is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0  License.

Recommended Citation: Wiman, Christian (2014) “[If I could write a cry],” The Yale ISM Review: Vol. 1: No. 1, Article 4.
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View article as a PDF: If I Could Write a Cry

Song Whose Beauty Deepens Prayer

This article is abbreviated and emended from Thomas Troeger, “Afterword,” in Song that Blesses Earth: Hymn Texts, Carols and Poems (Oxford: Oxford University Press, forthcoming).*

When and how does a hymn text deepen a community’s prayer? When not and why? We do not answer these questions in a vacuum but from a consciousness that has been shaped by a multitude of different forces. Theological convictions, literary tastes, cultural biases, the music of language as we have absorbed it throughout our lives, the impact of new knowledge and ways of understanding the world, the vividness of our imaginations, the song that has nurtured our faith, and the ethos of our home worshiping communities — all these and more shape the critical sensibilities with which we respond to hymn texts. In some of these realms we may share substantial common ground, but in others the landscape of our hearts will have very different contours and features.

It is easy to take the contextual forces that shape our values and standards for granted, especially if we have grown up singing hymns from a particular book. There is something finished and solid about a hymnal, as though its contents were a collection of fixed pieces, as immoveable as the skeletal structure of fossils. The resistance that new hymns and new hymnals encounter in many churches gives witness to this misperception of what in fact is a spirited history, often reflecting, as Eric Routley points out, the theological turbulence that has marked the church’s story:

Periods when somebody somewhere is tearing up the turf and asking questions and organizing rebellions and reconstructing disciplines produce hymns: when the steam goes out of such movements, or they become part of an expanded main stream, hymn writing goes on in a more tranquil way, but never for very long. Another colour is added to the picture by another ‘movement,’ and that movement brings new hymns and new kinds of hymn into the repertory.[1]

Routley’s insight about the dynamic character of hymnody illuminates our contemporary situation. We live in a period when many people in many places are “tearing up the turf and asking questions and organizing rebellions and reconstructing disciplines.” David Mahan states the challenge in broad but succinct terms: “How can the Church revitalize its speech in such manner that its own language regains a foothold in the discourses of the public square and, indeed, in the imagination of late-modern audiences, such that the gospel once more becomes intelligible as well as compelling to them?”[2] Mahan raises the question while examining the work of three poets who strive to achieve an idiom that bears fruitful witness to the gospel now, but it applies with equal force to hymn writers. Mahan describes how daunting the task is, quoting Geoffrey Hill’s vivid phrase, “the acoustical din that surrounds us all,”[3] and acknowledging in his own words: “So vast and so demanding are the challenges now facing the witnessing Church in its late-modern contexts that all variety of resources of language and of the imaginative intelligence should be marshaled for this decidedly public enterprise we call theology.”[4]

Summoning the “resources of language and of the imaginative intelligence” to break through “the acoustical din,” hymn writers might choose to use exclusively the idiom of the world as we know it now — its societal fragmentation, its cultural diversity and conflict, its cosmological vastness. Or hymnists might assume the coherence of the faith-world that fed earlier generations of poets, cultivating the vineyard of images and understandings that have sustained the church’s song through the centuries. Or the hymn writer might combine them both, drawing upon our global and scientific vision to expand the perimeters of tradition, and using tradition as a source of wisdom and revelation that deepen the meaning of our contemporary life. It is this latter, integrative approach that I have chosen. My desire to fuse tradition and innovation manifests itself in the three major criteria by which I judge my own work as well as that of others: musicality, structure and meaning, theological depth. I believe these to be the qualities that make for song whose beauty deepens prayer.

Although the music of language and the music of song and instrumental performance are not identical, they are related. What Seamus Heaney hopes for his poetry would resonate with the aspiration of many composers. Heaney writes that his “effort is to repose in the stability conferred by a musically satisfying order of sounds.”[5] A rigidly theological mind may find this too esthetic for the writing of hymns, asking: does not right doctrine and clear theological thought take precedence over “a musically satisfying order of sounds?” The question assumes an over-simplified understanding of how theology is manifest through the confluence of language, singing, and instrumental accompaniment when hymns are used in worship. I can illustrate this with an e-mail exchange that preceded my writing a hymn for a church’s anniversary celebration. The congregation wanted a new text that could be sung to a traditional setting, but they were still trying to settle on what the setting would be. Both of the e-mails were written by the pastor prior to my beginning work on the poem, and although she included helpful history and news about the congregation that would influence my creation of the text, I find it revealing how she discusses the musical sound that she has in her head for the church’s anniversary hymn:

I am drawn to the grand tunes but, after hearing a little more about our story, you may have other suggestions. Grosser Gott, wir loben dich is another strong tune that is only used once in the Presbyterian Hymnal. Depending upon how it is played, it seems to me it can be placed in a number of positions in worship. Andy [the church musician] and I will play through some possibilities on Monday.

The pastor demonstrates an awareness of the complex interrelationship between language and music: she acknowledges that, once I learn about the congregation’s story, it may touch off a different sound in my head. She later wrote me again after she and the musician had chosen the setting to which they wanted me to compose their anniversary hymn text:

The one we decided upon is Grosser Gott, wir loben dich. It does not necessarily fit the hymn placement after the sermon, although no hymn can be ruled out, but it serves well as an opening and closing hymn. I realize that it is a fairly grand setting — but it will fit well into our space and we have the organ to support it. In addition, on our Anniversary Sunday we will have timpani, violin (and one more instrument which I don’t remember) — all Saint Louis Symphony Orchestra players — with which to introduce the hymn.

Consider the number of factors that went into this decision: the tonal character of the music (“a fairly grand setting”), the flow of the liturgy (“the hymn placement” in the service), the church’s nave where it would be sung (“it will fit well into our space”), and the varied instrumental accompaniment (“the organ to support it” and members of the Symphony Orchestra “to introduce the hymn”). All of this preceded the writing of the text, and all of it rumbled around in my heart — “grand” musical sound, architectonic space, organ, timpani and violin — as I worked to create a hymn that opens:

Every planet, star and stone,

every atom charged and spinning,

every cell of blood and bone

trace to you, God, their beginning.

To exist in time and space

is itself a gift of grace.

After several drafts, I chose this opening stanza because the simple words, the ring of the rhymes, and the rhythm of the poetry produce to my ear the kind of “grand” sound that the pastor described in her e-mails. To quote Seamus Heaney again, I found in it “the stability conferred by a musically satisfying order of sounds” as well as theology I could offer with conviction.

I consistently raise two questions about a hymn’s structure and meaning, the second major category of my critical criteria: Does the hymn take us somewhere, gathering momentum from stanza to stanza? Is there immediately accessible meaning that will stand up to repeated singing and deeper reflection over time?

Although I find singing cyclic congregational song, for example, music of the Taizé community, prayerful and moving, I am drawn as a hymnpoet to creating sequential hymns. Sequential hymns put forth an argument or narrative line or poetic conceit that progresses from stanza to stanza.[6] I strive for a sense of development whose meaning is comprehensible upon first singing, yet rich enough to bear repetition and to produce new insights upon closer reading. In the words of Christian Wiman, I hope to attain “a surface clarity without sacrificing depth or complexity.”[7]

Because Christ teaches that the Spirit will guide us “into all the truth” (John 16:13a), theology can never be satisfied by confining itself to the Bible. We have to ask: Where is the Spirit leading us now? What reveals the Spirit? What blocks the Spirit? These are questions of theological depth, my third criterion for judging hymn texts. Edwin Muir helps me understand why such depth is an essential antidote to the distortions of our technologically obsessed culture. Over fifty years ago he traced the malaise of our culture to its “lopsided development”:

Something in the apparent progression [of ever-expanding human knowledge] has not progressed; for myself I would call it the imagination which would have made us able to use for purely human purposes all that applied science offers us. A lopsided development, whether of the body or the mind, is a diseased development, and is bound to lead to strange and unpredictable results…. What we are troubled by is the sense that science has run on far ahead of us, and that we are without the wisdom to use for our good the enormous power which it drops in passing into our hands.[8]

The “lopsided development” includes a neglect of theological depth, of what has been variously called through the centuries: mystery, wonder, spirit, God, the holy, the transcendent, the numinous. Writing new hymns in an era of “lopsided development” seems a modest effort at correcting its distortions. Nevertheless, it is a witness to the resurrection, to the way God disrupts the suffocating assumption that human thought and accomplishment define the boundaries of reality. The risen Christ, then, is the ultimate source of song that deepens prayer:

The risen Christ disturbed

far more than earth and stone.

Christ crumbled certainties inferred

from all that’s fixed and known:

the “facts” that we’ve defined —

that life is pulse and breath,

that wisdom is a heart resigned

to finitude and death.


Christ opens to surprise

the truth we presupposed:

accepted thought that calcifies

and views the world as closed.

Divine vitalities

from God’s deep heart and core

rise up with Christ as energies,

alive forevermore.


Refreshing, buoyant streams,

they lift our mind and heart

to look beyond our plots and schemes

to where God’s visions start:

inside an empty tomb

where dawn dispels the night

and earth becomes the holy womb

of newborn life and light.[9]



Thomas H. Troeger studied to become a flutist, but under the impact of a great preacher, he decided to prepare for the ministry. A pastor for seven years, he then began teaching homiletics, hymnody, and liturgics. His scholarship has focused on the role of the imagination in preaching and worship, and his creative work includes hymns and lyric poems. He is the Lantz Professor of Christian Communication at Yale Divinity School and Yale Institute of Sacred Music.



[1] Erik Routley, Christian Hymns Observed: When in Our Music God Is Glorified (Princeton, NJ: Prestige Publications, 1982), p. 6.

[2] David C. Mahan, An Unexpected Light: Theology and Witness in the Poetry and Thought of Charles Williams, Michael O’Siadhail, and Geoffery Hill (Eugene, Oregon: Pickwick Publications, 2009), p. 210.

[3] Mahan, p. 164

[4] Mahan, p. 221.

[5] Seamus Heaney, Crediting Poetry (Loughcrew, Oldcastle, Co. Meath, Ireland: The Gallery Press, 1995), p. 28.

[6] For a very helpful discussion of the difference between cyclic and sequential congregational song see C. Michael Hawn, Gather into One: Praying and Singing Globally (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2003), pp. 224–240.

[7] Christian Wiman, Ambition and Survival: Becoming a Poet (Port Townsend, Washington: Copper Canyon Press, 2007), p. 203.

[8] Edwin Muir, The Estate of Poetry (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1962), p. 85.

[9] Troeger, Song that Blesses Earth.


*Reproduced by permission of Oxford University Press. All rights reserved. Any further reproduction requires permission from Oxford University Press (

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