AS we are approaching Easter, and the serious and contemplative hymns of the centre of Christian faith, I thought I would treat myself (and you, I hope) to something a little more lightweight: Just a Closer Walk with Thee.

The words and tune are believed to date to the days of slavery when it was sung on the plantations and subsequently in southern African-American churches of the nineteenth century.

Some authorities suggest that the basis for the modern song is one published in 1885, called Closer Walk with Thee, with lyrics attributed to Martha J Lankton and music by William Kirkpatrick. In fact Martha J Lankton was a pseudonym for Fanny Crosby, who was such a prolific writer that publishers were hesitant to have so many hymns by one person in their hymnals. As a result Crosby used nearly 200 different names during her career. I have found the words, which you can see here. The first verse reads:

I am happy, O my Saviour,
For I know that I am Thine,
Thro’ the pure and perfect cleansing
Of Thy precious blood divine:
But my soul would rise still higher,
There are greater joys for me;
I am longing, I am praying
For a closer walk with Thee,
For a closer walk with Thee,
For a closer walk with Thee.

Refrain

Saviour come, abide with me,
I am longing, I am praying,
For a closer walk with Thee.

I don’t find a great resemblance to Just a Closer Walk with Thee:

I am weak, but Thou art strong,
Jesus, keep me from all wrong,
I’ll be satisfied as long
As I walk, let me walk close to Thee.

Just a closer walk with Thee,
Grant it, Jesus, is my plea,
Daily walking close to Thee,
Let it be, dear Lord, let it be.

Through this world of toil and snares,
If I falter, Lord, who cares?
Who with me my burden shares?
None but Thee, dear Lord, none but Thee.

When my feeble life is o’er,
Time for me will be no more,
Guide me gently, safely o’er
To Thy kingdom’s shore, to Thy shore.

Whether or not the 1855 composition was the basis for Just a Closer Walk with Thee, the hymn with the words that we sing today started to become better known when it was sung at musical conventions held by African-American churches in the 1930s.

At some point it came to the attention of Kenneth Morris, an African-American jazz musician and composer of gospel music. One version simply says that gospel musicians told him about it, but a much more colourful story is told by Dr Horace Boyer, a scholar in African-American gospel music.

Boyer wrote: ‘On a train trip from Kansas City to Chicago, Morris exited the train on one of its stops to get some fresh air and heard one of the station porters singing a song. He paid little attention at first, but after he reboarded the train the song remained with him and became so prominent in his mind that at the next stop, he left the train, took another train back to the earlier station, and asked the porter to sing the song again. Morris wrote down the words and music and published the song Just a Closer Walk with Thee that year, 1940, adding a few lyrics of his own to provide more breadth. Within two years the song became a standard in gospel music, eventually becoming a standard in Jazz, and then moving into the realm of American folk music, known and sung by many.’

As soon as it was published, the hymn was a hit. There are thousands of versions on YouTube. I have to say I find some of them a little over the top, but I hope you like the selection I have made.

In 1950 it was a million seller for country singer Red Foley.

Here are The Seekers in 1966.

The song is often used at funerals in New Orleans, and here it is at the one for jazz trumpeter Lionel Ferbos who died in 2014 at the age of 103.

I couldn’t miss out the great Mahalia Jackson.

I love this one by the Mills Brothers, who were active from 1928 to 1982. In 1934, they were the first African-Americans to give a command performance for British royalty when they sang for King George V and Queen Mary. I’m afraid I can’t discover when this record was made.

However my favourites are both by the wonderful Patsy Cline, this upbeat version

and this much slower one

I am not sure when either recording was made, though I guess the second one is the earlier. Cline started recording in 1955 and she died in a plane crash in 1963 at the age of 30. RIP Patsy.

I will be writing about hymns on Palm Sunday (this weekend) and on Good Friday and Easter Sunday, so there will not be a Midweek Hymn next Wednesday.

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