During this time whilst we can’t sing together in worship we are aiming to post a different hymn each week. For some Sundays it will be the obvious hymn in Common Praise for a particular Sunday and a brief commentary – partly with reference to The Penguin Book of Hymns edited by Ian Bradley, The Nation’s Favourite Hymns by Andrew Barr or research on the internet – will be published with our hymn choice for the week. The words of the hymn will be provided alongside a recording of the hymn, courtesy of Lucy Colbourne at home whilst Lancaster University is in lockdown. This will have been recorded by Billy Colbourne (Assistant Organist) and includes use of his Hauptwerk organ also at home, with the sounds of Salisbury Cathedral’s organ.
Charles Pavey – Organist & Choirmaster
Were you There
Were you there when they crucified my Lord?
Were you there when they nailed him to the tree?
Were you there when they laid him in the tomb?
Words & music: American Folk Hymn
CCLI - 1073121
Although listed in Holy Trinity’s hymnal Common Praise as an American Folk Hymn, the history behind such songs or hymns as Were you there when they crucified my Lord? is far greater than first suggested. As told when I taught in school, the African-Americans didn’t work in the cotton fields in the United States out of choice; they were slaves who were captives, exiled from their homeland and shipped across the ocean. Musically, their outlets were spirituals and, in secular music, blues which progressed to Jazz and influenced 20th Century contemporary pop.
The spirituals were born out of suffering but also portrayed great hope…but, if not in this life, certainly in the next. Were you here when they crucified my Lord?, like many spirituals, uses a system of coded language in its lyrics. Metaphors, especially those involving Old Testament figures as well as Jesus, are often central to the meanings of spirituals. This week’s Hymn for the Week has its place on both Passion Sunday and Good Friday. Underneath the narrative, however, is a metaphor likening Jesus’s suffering to the suffering of slaves. In verse two we are asked ‘Were you there when they nailed him to the Tree?’ African-Americans would have drawn a connection between Jesus nailed to a tree and the frightening prevalence of lynching in their own lives. Other verses to this hymn have been published elsewhere but Common Praise concludes with a reference to Luke 23:55: ‘Were you there when they laid him in the tomb?’
The spiritual was first published in William Elezar Barton's Old Plantation Hymns in 1899, although it probably pre-dated the American Civil War (1861-5). There would have been an aural tradition of passing down spirituals by word of mouth rather than initially writing them down. A commentary at this time stated: “There are some of the more recent plantation hymns which have added an element of culture without diminishing religious fervour. It is a tender and beautiful hymn, the climax of its effect depending largely on the hold and slur on the exclamation ‘Oh’ with which the third line begins, and the repetition and expression of the word ‘tremble, tremble, tremble’.”
Were you there when they crucified my Lord?, as published in Common Praise, was arranged by Francis B Westbrook (b. Thornton Heath, Surrey, 1903; d. Harpenden, Hertfordshire, 1975). He was educated at Whitgift Middle School, Croydon, and Didsbury (Wesleyan) Theological College, Manchester. He was ordained in 1930 and his first church was in Tipton, near Birmingham. Whilst there he took the opportunity to study with Granville Bantock, Professor of Music at the nearby University, for a DMus degree. According to his biographer he was torn between his love of music and his duty as a Methodist minister. But he too, like countless others, appreciated this hymn, whether it be for its history, its meaning or the music that was inspired by it.
Charles Pavey - Organist & Choirmaster