‘Were You There?’Special to The Mountaineer
When I was a child, our family had a housekeeper. Lurline Argo was a blessing to my life. Before I knew there was racial prejudice, I loved this woman, whose skin was much darker than mine. She loved me, too, and was one of the foundations of my childhood.
One morning I heard her singing in the kitchen. The plaintive notes of “Were You There” drew me to her side. I could feel the love and reverence with which she sang, even though I was too young to understand the depth of the message.
Now I know the message and the person it is about. The Gospel accounts of the Crucifixion of Jesus never cease to make me sorrowful. I feel the intensity of the song when I sing, “Sometimes it causes me to tremble, tremble, tremble.”
Within all the spirituals is a blend of African heritage and memories of slave days in the United States. The essential element, however, is the heartfelt interpretation of biblical stories and the commitment to Jesus as Lord.
Even though there was bondage in slavery here on earth, there was freedom in him. There was joy in knowing the beloved Savior. So it was natural to want to learn and sing about every detail of his life.
Before the assistance of the printed page, it was necessary to teach all folk music with repetitious phrases. So as we sing this beautiful hymn we repeat the same question over and over again, “Were you there when …?” Even though I wasn’t with Jesus to watch as He was “nailed to the tree” or “pierced in the side” or “laid in the tomb,” I feel deeply involved in the event of suffering and tears.
Millions of people heard the music and the message of the spirituals in the late 1800s from the Fisk Jubilee Singers. They were students who formed a musical group on the campus of Fisk University in Nashville, Tennessee. The group became famous as they traveled abroad, singing their faith through the soul-stirring spirituals.
We learn the origin of many spirituals in New Jubilee Songs (1901) and Folk Songs of the American Negro (1907), two books that were published through the efforts of two professors at Fish University, John W. Work Jr. and his brother, Frederick J. Work. These men were pioneers in the preservation and development of the spirituals.
I am thankful that the African American spiritual contributes a depth of Christian experience that is needed within the whole family of believers. The memories of my dearest friend, Lurline, brought this to my ears and heart as I listened to her beautiful voice so long ago.
Each word that we sing, however, leads us to the reality of the crucifixion cruelty to One so perfect. But we can worship in praise and thankfulness for Jesus’ sacrifice for our salvation and pray: “Lord Jesus, we bow in humble adoration at the foot of your cross. Amen.”
The song story above was excerpted from Adams’ book “52 Hymn Story Devotions.” Reach Lucy at Lucya424@aol.com or visit www.52hymns.com.