A Blessing Over Waters

This text originally appeared in an interactive multimedia CD-ROM entitled Ocean Psalms: Meditations, Stories, Prayers, Songs and Blessings from the Sea, co-produced by Teresa Berger and Lorna Collingridge (Durham, NC: MysticWaters Media, 2008).Text by Teresa Berger, melody adapted from the chant of the Exsultet by Lorna Collingridge; reproduced by kind permission of the authors.

Melody: A Blessing Over Waters


Living God,

we call you mother

because you are the source of all life.

At the very dawn of creation

you birthed the cosmos

and took it in your arms to nurture it.

Ever since then

mothers have known your creative energy

in the breaking of their waters

when giving birth.


Your Spirit breathed gently on the waters of creation

making them wellsprings of life.

You taught the waves

their words of wisdom

and the ocean depths

their silent song of praise.


The torrential waters of the great flood

became a sign of the waters of redemption

as they brought an end to worlds of violence

and a new beginning of life.

In the rainbow

you gave water

the color of hope.


You showed Hagar a well in the desert

to revive her dying child.

You inspired Hebrew midwives

to save the children of Israel

thus preparing a people

to walk through the waters of the Red Sea.

You moved a Levite woman

to hide her son in a basket

and entrust him to a river.

Miriam sang your praises

as you freed her people from slavery

and drowned Pharaoh’s chariots

in the waters of the sea.


Like a mother

you carried your people

through the desert,

providing water in the wilderness.


No wonder your prophets spoke of your grace

as morning dew

as overflowing torrent

as mother’s milk.


When the time had come,

your Word took human form

in the water of Mary’s womb.

Blessed, indeed, the fruit of this womb:


He was baptized in the waters of the Jordan.

At a well, he spoke truth to an outcast woman

and promised her living waters.

He calmed the storm over the Sea of Galilee

and the wind and waves recognized his voice.


Dying on a cross,

water and blood flowed from his side.

In them, you birthed your church.


Living God

you have made water a symbol of your life

ever since the dawn of creation.

Let your Spirit breathe gently on these waters

that they may become for us the waters of life,

the color of hope,

the sound of rain in the desert.

May you birth us

ever anew

in water and the Spirit

from now on until the very end of time

when the river of the water of life

will be all in all.



Teresa BergerTeresa Berger is Professor of Liturgical Studies and Thomas E. Golden Jr. Professor of Catholic Theology at the Yale Institute of Sacred Music and Yale Divinity School.  Her scholarly interests lie at the intersection of theological and liturgical studies with gender theory. Her publications include Gender Differences and the Making of Liturgical History; Dissident Daughters: Feminist Liturgies in Global Context; and Fragments of Real Presence: Liturgical Traditions in the Hands of Women.  She has also written on the hymns of Charles Wesley and on the nineteenth-century Anglo-Catholic revival. She was editor of Liturgy in Migration: From the Upper Room to Cyberspace, essays from the 2011 ISM Liturgy Conference.


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

Recommended Citation: Berger, Teresa. (2015) “A Blessing Over Waters,” The Yale ISM Review: Vol. 2: No. 1, Article 7. Available at: https://www.ismreview.yale.edu

View article as a PDF: A Blessing Over Waters

A Study Guide to Performing the Passion

Performing the Passion is a documentary produced by Margot Fassler and Jacqueline C. Richard at the Yale Institute of Sacred Music in 2009. It features a contemporary performance of the 1725 version of J.S. Bach’s St. John Passion, conducted by Simon Carrington. Performers and scholars from Yale and elsewhere appear in the film. They describe and reflect upon this great work of musical art and the experience of performing it.

The following study guide is intended for groups of adults. It may be used in settings such as adult education programs, retreats, small faith communities, choir and sacred arts gatherings, and schools. This guide is written for the group leader who will shepherd the discussion and who will insure that all present are invited and encouraged to participate. (A handout of the discussion questions is provided below.) The introductions and questions may be adapted to those who participate, and simplified or shortened as needed.

Alternatively, the guide may be used by individuals as a self-study project, in which case journaling would take the place of discussion.

The film has been divided into two sections for the purposes of this study guide. The time frame for the study is three hours, including introductions, discussions, and a break. For large groups, additional time may need to be allotted.


Arrange the seating so that the participants form small groups (4–6 persons).
Materials: Handout, means of projection for the videos, white board or large sheet of paper, markers.

Begin (20 minutes)

  1. The leader welcomes everyone. If the participants do not already know one another, allow time for introductions within the small groups. Ask the participants to share their answers these questions: How familiar are you with the music of J.S. Bach? With the St. John Passion (very familiar, somewhat familiar, not at all familiar)? What do you find engaging about his music, if you are familiar with it?
  2. On a large sheet of paper or a white board, have the participants brainstorm a list of as many themes of the Passion of Jesus that they can think of (suffering, betrayal, etc.). In small groups, discuss: If you were preparing a creative musical presentation of the Passion today, what themes would you want to bring forward and why?

View Part I

Invite the participants to view the first portion of the video: “Performing the Passion, Part I.” (30 minutes)

produced by the Yale Institute of Sacred Music
with support from The Lilly Endowment, Inc.
©2009 Yale Institute of Sacred Music

Reflect and Discuss (30 minutes)

  1. In the 1725 version, shown in the video, the first theme that appears is human sinfulness and the call to repentance (“Humankind, bewail your great sin.”). Later, we hear about Peter’s betrayal and the joy and difficulty of being a follower of Jesus. How do these themes compare with the ones you identified before watching the video? In your view, how do the themes of the Passion that Bach brings forward—the sin of humankind and the path of discipleship—affirm or challenge audiences today?
  2. Several aspects of musical preparation for performing the Passion were discussed in the video: how rehearsals are ordered, how soloists prepare for their roles, vocal techniques, etc. What impressed you as you watched these preparations for performing the Passion? Were there any surprises or questions raised for you? Discuss the implications of what was said in the film concerning musicianship.
  3. At one point in the video the observation is made that for Bach’s audience, “The chorales are the high point.” Why was this the case? For you as a listener today, how do the various musical forms (recitative, arias, chorales) make a difference in how you engage with the music? With the story?
  4. In its original liturgical setting, the first part of the Passion was followed by a one-hour sermon. Why do you think the sermon was inserted here, rather than at the end of the work? If you had to preach after having heard this much of the story, what sort of message would you proclaim?

BREAK (20 minutes)

View Part II (42 minutes)

Re-gather the group to view Part II of the video.

produced by the Yale Institute of Sacred Music
with support from The Lilly Endowment, Inc.
©2009 Yale Institute of Sacred Music

Reflect and Discuss (30 minutes)

  1. The charge that Bach’s St. John Passion is anti-Jewish is discussed in the video. What facts or observations in that discussion particularly impressed you? According to Christian theology “all of mankind is responsible” for the Passion. Therefore no one group bears the blame for the death of Jesus. Do you think this is well understood today? Why or why not?
  2. Rather than dwelling on the violence of the Crucifixion, St. John’s Passion presents us with an account of the glorification of the Son of God. How is the glorious quality of the Passion expressed in Bach’s portrayal? When the viola da gamba accompanies the words of Jesus from the cross, “It is finished,” what feeling does the music evoke in you? What is finished?
  3. A commenter in the video says, “The hero of Judah, Jesus, has won the struggle for all of us.” Bach expresses the intensity of this triumph in the music. But he then returns to the very intimate and personal response of the believer—a mixture of sorrow and hope. Why do you suppose Bach did not simply end on a triumphant note? Why do “floods of tears” follow, and what does this say about our human response to the Passion?
  4. A Eucharistic theology emerges in the final portion of Bach’s musical work. Jesus is the Paschal lamb; sins are forgiven and death is overcome through his suffering and triumph. How are these elements related to the Lord’s Supper / celebration of the Eucharist, as you understand it?
  5. The motet by Jacob Handl, inspired by Isaiah 57, starts with the words: “Behold how the righteous one dies / and no one takes notice; / the righteous are taken away, / and no one pays attention.” What does this text reveal about Christ’s Passion? What response does this ending invite from the listener?

Conclude (8 minutes)

Ask the participants to reflect on what they have learned in this study, and to identify an insight they want to remember. Depending on time, they may name that insight aloud to the whole group, or in their small groups, or to the person next to them.

Direct their attention to the list of materials for further reading, which appears on the handout, and encourage them to read them.

Conclude by thanking all who participated.


Click for PDF: Performing the Passion Participant Handout

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

Recommended Citation: Ferrone, Rita. (2015) “Study Guide to Performing the Passion,” The Yale ISM Review: Vol. 1: No. 2, Article 5. Available at: https://www.ismreview.yale.edu

View article as a PDF: A Study Guide to Performing the Passion

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.
Available at: https://www.ismreview.yale.edu/

View article as a PDF: Work Songs

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.
Available at: https://www.ismreview.yale.edu/


Songs are born when we listen to the Spirit of God moving within and around us. I serve as music director for the Jazz Ministry at Saint Peter’s Church in New York City. Our jazz liturgies, at 5 p.m. on Sunday, began in 1965 and provide fertile ground for cultivating innovative sounds and song-leading techniques. I am extremely blessed to have a close-knit family of friends, artists, and pastors who dramatically shape the songs that accompany our worship. Recently, I have been noticing more and more connections within my life and the lives of those around me — the joy, pain, sorrow or rebirth that draws us nearer to God and to one another. How does the divine composer weave together our imperfect songs and actions into the brilliant fabric of lives restored, redeemed?


Improvisation, which is essential to jazz, opens to us a process mirroring God’s work on earth. Walking amidst trials on my own journey, my spirit fills with new songs as life springs up around me. Here is enough inspiration for a lifetime of creative responses. Whenever we recognize that our song is a gift it relieves us of the burden of self-reliance and encourages openness to grace and connection with others. As we listen more intently, we let go of our agendas and fears, heightening our awareness of the presence of the Holy Spirit in our community. Silence clears our head and heart, opening space for God to take root in our imaginations. Attention to the quiet, still voice in our midst promotes harmony among those gathered for worship and an awareness of our personal and communal role in the larger world. The process of self-realization and relationship to those around us requires deep listening, which is the essence of improvisation.

One of my teachers speaks of “finding” a song rather than composing it. I admire this attitude and have found it to be true in my own practice. I play musical ideas over and over again until something speaks to me. I recall a scripture verse from my childhood: “Ask, and it will be given you; seek, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened for you.”[1] To anyone who searches for a way to practice improvisation, a simple method for approaching this art form is revealed in these words: Ask. Seek. Knock.

A Simple Method

ASK  When we ask for guidance and courage to take the next step into the unknown territory of improvisation, we ready ourselves to step into the musical moment, clearing our mind of anything preordained. Improvisation asks for increased trust among the congregation and fellow musicians, since anything new requires patience and cooperation. Asking can be a communal process: an assembly poses questions to itself about an alternative way to approach music in worship.

Whenever an individual or group moves away from the written page, there will always be a great temptation to return to something that is planned and comfortable. However, jazz artists are defined by their desire to counter this natural impulse, adapting the music as needed for each occasion. Visionary saxophonist Charlie Parker once said, “I realized by using the high notes of the chords as a melodic line, and by the right harmonic progression, I could play what I heard inside me. That’s when I was born.”[2]

SEEK  In order to seek the Holy Spirit’s movement through our instruments and voices, we listen carefully, praying that God will work within us. Practicing countless melodic and rhythmic variations, we hope to eventually let go of what is familiar to us and become fluent vehicles for the Spirit in our midst. Improvisation allows for active responses to a baptism, birth, death, or pointed text. Human error and hilarious moments lighten the mood and require quick thinking for our song leaders, bringing everyone closer together and reminding us to not always take our songs too seriously.

I have a fond memory of an improvised psalm setting where the simple refrain “be glad” emerged within the assembly over the course of the piece. After everyone finished playing and singing, my two year-old daughter sang a solo version of the refrain. This moment of childlike faith and innocence led to a church filled with joyous laughter at the impromptu coda.

KNOCK  When we courageously put an idea into the world, we are knocking at someone’s door. Our action will have internal and external reactions as the notes that we choose are echoed and countered by our community. I usually find this step a leap of faith and the most difficult one to take. However, once an idea or motive comes forth from our mind and instrument, only listening is required to move forward. We listen as we go, adding musical ideas organically and gluing phrases one to another like building blocks. When others join the conversation, we need to open our ears to these stimuli: text, line, texture, dynamics, harmony, phrase, emotions, and surroundings.

It helps to limit musical choices at the outset to avoid being overwhelmed with options. Deciding on a single mode, rhythmic feel and three- or four-note possibilities facilitates confident language and communication.

Bringing Jazz to Church

Challenges arise when bringing jazz to church. Aural teaching, which is commonly used to introduce new songs to the assembly, has its drawbacks. Text is frequently simplified for ease of repetition, producing truncated phrases and forms. The impact of extended lyrics in printed songs or hymns can be lost. In addition, jazz can sometimes instill fear of the unknown or the feeling of a members-only club to which only the performers are invited or welcome. In a quest for deeper, more authentic artistry and communion with God, some musicians have turned inward, unearthing extended, prayerful musical meditations. This movement raises questions however. How can we relate improvising techniques to the whole church and not just the musicians leading worship? Can the church open its doors to these artists and their songs without disrupting a sense of flow, mood, or intended focus within the liturgy?

Although these challenges are real, jazz also offers brilliant gifts to the church. Reflecting Christ’s vulnerability and forgiveness, this art form embraces our faults and relates to us, regardless of where we are on our spiritual path. The wealth of texts, hymns, and songs that the church already possesses informs new styles and ideas that can be developed uniquely for each congregation and generation. In the jazz ministry at Saint Peter’s we encourage congregants to participate in singing, or even speaking, a psalm or prayer with improvised accompaniment. We have asked ourselves how traditional elements might be re-imagined in a modern context, employing innovative harmonies or rhythms from our culture and from others around the world. The result has been a creative and ongoing process.

One of our song leaders, Melissa Stylianou, described her Sunday experiences at our church in this way:

Jazz Vespers is the musical highlight of what can be a totally crazy week filled with teaching, my own shows, all that commuting, other “side man” gigs, and the delights of being a new mother. I know when I come here, I’ll be challenged by the compositions, and challenged by the freedom that Ike gives us: the license, and even the imperative, to create something in the moment that really means something to us and that is communicated to (and sometimes sung by) the congregation. The freedom of not knowing what is coming next is sometimes uncomfortable for me, but I’m always amazed at how this large group can work together in the moment like one organism…. One of the things that stuck with me from my theater school days, and which I draw upon all the time when singing this music is something a teacher said to us one day: “Be Here Now.” It’s harder than it sounds and takes constant vigilance, but it really does make a difference in making music (and in life in general), and I feel like it’s an apt explanation for why this band can do what it does: we’re all working hard at Being Here Now.

A rendition of Psalm 37 was recently completely improvised at our jazz vespers with members of our band, Evergreen. A dancer from our community, Hannah Barnard, joined us in a free dance response to the text and music. The psalmist proclaims, “Commit your way to the LORD; put your trust in the LORD and see what God will do.” The approach for many of our jazz liturgies involves giving musicians the psalm text with no written music or chords. In this case, our guitarist, Jesse Lewis, begins improvising with no instructions or limitations, using only the words and the service context as his guide. Once a drone or harmonic foundation is established along with vibraphonist Chris Dingman, singers Melissa Stylianou and Chanda Rule knit together words and melodies. As the refrain is developed in the moment, it is repeated and shared aurally with the congregation. The singers may introduce multiple refrains, rounds or harmony parts, but in this example a simple phrase is echoed in the middle and at the end of the piece. The ensemble accompanies, using only their ears and experience, building trust and friendship based on constantly watching out for each other and elevating the whole body above a single part. Church members and visitors are welcome to join in singing, regardless of age, note-reading ability, or language skills.

PSALM 37 Improvisation

This past Lenten season our song leaders taught a song called “Listen” each week to the congregation. The song allowed the assembly and guest musicians to sing and play without any printed music while lighting candles, offering prayers, and moving throughout the sanctuary. Using this simple “lead sheet” format also allowed adaptation for diverse musical groups to participate in the song throughout the Sundays of Lent. These included a cappella singing, a jazz/gospel quartet, a chamber ensemble of strings, and a big band.



The following video shows my wife, the singer Misty Ann Sturm, leading us in our setting of Psalm 23. This piece contains a mix of fully notated chamber parts with improvisation integrated into the saxophone, guitar, bass, and drums. “Restores my soul” emerges as a refrain that we teach to the congregation. Even within the rhythmic context of an odd meter, having the song leader model the line confidently alone, then welcoming participation with repetitions of the refrain, helps the assembly to learn comfortably and immediately. With a cappella singing, this technique allows for flexibility in form and duration and often leads to meditative repetitions beyond the written form.



As I look back over several years’ experience of creating original songs, I see a strong common thread woven through them all: the theme of restoration. In retrospect, the work of the Spirit becomes evident in ways that even I was not aware of at the time. I am learning that my personal musical statements speak out long before I understand what is actually happening in my spirit.

During these years, my father has battled cancer and he has recently passed away. His journey has been defined by unbelievable strength and perseverance. The challenges involved have called out love and faith from him and those around him. A collection of songs about renewal has grown out of this season in my life, with the help of some of my closest friends and family. The project is called Shelter of Trees, the title being drawn from a text written by my friend Cheryl Mitchell. A line from her beautiful poem became our refrain: “Close your eyes and be, and you will be with me.”

Shelter of Trees


Ike Sturm is a bassist, composer and teacher, serving as Music Director for the Jazz Ministry at Saint Peter’s Church in New York City. Ike and his ensemble, Evergreen, frequently create and perform original music for liturgies at Saint Peter’s and gatherings around the world.



[1] Matthew 7:7.

[2] Charlie Parker, quoted in The Words of African-American Heroes, ed. Clara Villarosa, New York: Newmarket Press, 2011, p. 13.


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

Recommended Citation: Sturm, Ike (2014) “Listen,” The Yale ISM Review: Vol. 1: No. 1, Article 14.
Available at: https://www.ismreview.yale.edu/

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