Were You There?

To me, a Maundy Thursday or Good Friday service seems incomplete if I don’t hear, at least once, the old spiritual “Were You There When They Crucified My Lord?” The text and melody are so simple, yet profound, and I imagine I am not the only one who continues humming it long after the service is over. (Unless it’s a Maundy Thursday service, in which case, I can usually keep quiet at least until we make it to the car!)

As is the case with most of our beloved spirituals, there isn’t a clear composer or date of composition for “Were You There.” We know that it must have originated in the mid-1800s, before the Civil War and the abolishment of slavery. Spirituals developed as “work songs” that were sung while tending the fields, doing laundry, or fulfilling other responsibilities. Because of this, they tend to have simple melodies that are easy to learn and pleasant to sing. Most spirituals contain hidden messages of escape and freedom (such as “Deep River,” “Steal Away,” “Wade in the Water,” and “This Train is Bound for Glory”). Many of these songs carried literal directions, while others subtly provided inspiration for those who may have been thinking of making an escape.

However, it seems that “Were You There?” contains none of these messages, and is, instead, a song of reverence for Jesus’ suffering. Jesus’ story must have been one that American slaves could identify with, as they, too, knew what it was like to be mocked, humiliated, beaten, and abused.

Over time, “Were You There?” and several other spirituals have been included in our collection of regularly sung hymns. This is credited largely to African American composer Harry T. Burleigh (1866-1949). The majority of his life’s work was devoted to arranging spirituals and publishing them to ensure that they would not be forgotten. In 1924, G. Ricordi published his arrangement of “Were You There?” for high voice and piano. This particular arrangement is most closely associated with contralto Marian Anderson, as she released a recording of the piece in 1939.

Though we probably all know the text by heart, I’ve provided it below, along with two recordings of the work.

Were You There?

Were you there when they crucified my Lord?
Were you there when they crucified my Lord?
Oh, sometimes it causes me to tremble, tremble, tremble.
Were you there when they crucified my Lord?

Were you there when they nailed him to the tree?
Were you there when they nailed him to the tree?
Oh, sometimes it causes me to tremble, tremble, tremble.
Were you there when they nailed him to the tree?

Were you there when they laid him in the tomb?
Were you there when they laid him in the tomb?
Oh, sometimes it causes me to tremble, tremble, tremble.
Were you there when they laid him in the tomb?

Were you there when God raised him from the tomb?
Were you there when God raised him from the tomb?
Oh, sometimes it causes me to tremble, tremble, tremble.
Were you there when God raised him from the tomb?

Source: Lutheran Hymnal 

 Marian Anderson

Solo Piano Meditation

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