Thoughts on worship, congregational song
and the life of the church.

Sunday, January 15, 2017

Five Congregational Songs to Teach During Black History Month

February is Black History Month, and you may be wondering how to embody this theme in your worship services in the coming weeks. Singing together is one great way to engage with the diverse faith journeys and cultures of Canadians of colour. They say you don’t know someone until you walk a mile in their shoes, but I think relationships begin when we sing one another’s songs. Working to build these links in our worship and beyond is always vitally important, but it becomes all the more urgent in a time which has seen a deplorable upsurge of hatred and violence toward people of colour and other marginalized populations, both abroad and here at home. This February, and in all seasons as ministers of music, let us sing toward God’s vision of love and justice for the whole inhabited earth.

Your community may be mostly unfamiliar with this kind of repertoire. Or, these songs might already be familiar favourites, but you want to take this opportunity to learn a little more about their context. Teach one or more of them in the coming weeks, and keep on singing them throughout the year. (As a colleague once put it during a workshop on African American song: “We’re black all the rest of the year too!”)

Salaam aleikum / May Peace Be With You

words: traditional Ghanain (Arabic); music: traditional Ghanain

This gentle and playful song of blessing could be sung as people greet one another during the passing of the peace, or as a benediction to close the service. Its simple descending melody is punctuated by a fun call-and-response section where the leader calls out “salaam aleikum” and the people cry out “ho ya!” This ubiquitous greeting in Arabic means literally “peace be upon you” or “peace be with you.”

I learned this song from Debbie Lou Ludolph, leader of the interfaith global song choir Inshallah. When she teaches it, each shout of “ho ya!” gets a fist pump in the air. My children’s choir love this part, especially the five calls in a row at the end. You can accompany this song with guitar and djembe and shakers, with piano, or totally a cappella. If you think your congregation might be hesitant with shouts and fist pumps, consider having the children teach it to the congregation; adults are often more relaxed in engaging with new things when they are doing it for and with the kids. If you, as worship leader, introduce the song with confidence, your congregation will have confidence in the song.

The song is available in simple four-part harmony as arranged by Marc Anderson and Marty Haugen for GIA Publications, and is included in the Inshallah song book. Your congregation can learn this song completely by rote, with confident singers making up harmonies by ear as the song progresses.

Inshallah had this to say about the song: “This inclusive song of peace from Ghana has helped Inshallah sing peace with Arabic speaking neighbours, learn a basic Arab greeting, sing a prayer for peace in interfaith gatherings but in a non-English language, and welcome Syrian refugees. We have learned that language can both create barriers and break them down.”

Now Go in Peace

words: Michael Mair (b.1942), (c) Church of Scotland Panel on Worship
music: JUNKANOO, Caribbean folk melody, arr. Albert Chung, Faith Alive Christian Resources 

This is a simple going-out song inspired by Caribbean folk melodies. Its gentle syncopation and falling triadic motion evoke the idioms of Calypso music, and invite a simple accompaniment emphasizing the second and fourth beats of the bar. It’s easy to teach and learn by rote, and can be sung as a round.

The melody is named for the Junkanoo folk festival and parade which takes place across the Bahamas at the end of each year. The festival incorporates bright costumes and masks, dancing, and music. This folk tradition has a long history, and there are a few possible meanings of the word “junkanoo.” One possible origin is that it derives from the French term gens inconnus, meaning unknown people or strangers, since masks are an important part of the celebrations.

If you are introducing this song in worship, you may want to teach it as a simple melody, then bring it back in subsequent weeks and introduce the canon. To sing it in a round, designate another strong singer or two to help you, and lead the canon in two or three parts with a leader anchoring each group. I guarantee people will be singing this song to themselves all week.

“Now Go in Peace” appears in the Church Hymnary 4th ed. (#789), Lift Up Your Hearts (#951), and Sing! A New Creation (#289).

Photo by flickr user Errol Bodie

Guide My Feet

African-American spiritual, traditional

harmonized by Wendell P. Whalum (©1984)

This rousing four-part spiritual has a long tradition of being sung by rural African-Americans in the deep South. It is useful in many contexts, both in and out of worship, and can be adapted depending on the situation; its structure suggests it was at one time a call-and-response song, but it can be sung in straight four-part harmony as arranged by Wendell Whalum. “Guide My Feet” can be enlivened with a rhythmically-driven piano accompaniment, punctuated with trumpet and drum kit or hand percussion, or sung totally a cappella. It is a versatile song because the initial lines of each verse can be adapted and improvised on the spot; in addition to “guide my feet,” “hold my hand,” “stand by me,” “I’m your child,” you could also try “give me strength,” “share my load,” or “light my path.”

To free the singers from the printed score, teach the song by rote and have the choir support the harmonies. You can indicate to the singers which verse is coming next by singing over the final measure the words that are coming next. For example, as the congregation holds the word “vain,” sing “hold my hand!” on the fifth scale degree (or invent your own melody), and continue into the next verse without a break. You can also vary the repetitions with differences in dynamic level and by dropping out or adding in instrumentation.

“Guide My Feet” is printed in many hymnals; a selected list is available at Hear it here.

Feuilles-O (Haitian Kyrie)

Haitian folk song; adapted and arranged by Andrew Donaldson

Feuilles-O is a Haitian Creole folk song which depicts a mother caring for her sick child. As she cares for her child, she sings a prayer invoking the healing power of the leaves (feuilles) she is preparing. It was popularized in North America in the folk song movement of the 1960s, especially through a rendition by Simon and Garfunkel for their album Bridge Over Troubled Water. In 2010 when Haiti was devastated by an earthquake, hymn writer Andrew Donaldson adapted the tune as a setting of the liturgical prayer “Kyrie eleison,” “Lord, have mercy.” Donaldson’s version blends the Greek liturgical text with French lyrics that resonate with the original Creole song. Though time has passed and the world has turned its attention to other crises in the ensuing years, the challenges facing Haiti continue, and this song is one way of praying together with our siblings in Christ in other parts of the world. Consider interspersing the prayers of the people with this song as a refrain.

This song can be sung unaccompanied, or with hand drum and shaker accompaniment. Consider teaching the harmonies to the choir ahead of time, then introducing the melody to the congregation by rote. You can vary the texture by having a soloist sing the French line “sauvez-moi la vie,” with the whole assembly responding “Kyrie.” Take time when teaching it to help the singers “feel” the syncopation, especially the rhythmic motive of the first “eleison,” which can be pushed to have almost the feel of a triplet. A gentle crescendo through the held notes at m. 14 and 27 will help to keep the song’s forward momentum in these moments.

The Haitian Kyrie is available for free download on AndrewDonaldson’s website. Hear it here.

Total Praise

Richard Smallwood

Grammy award-winning Gospel music artist Richard Smallwood, who was inducted into the Gospel Music Hall of Fame in 2006, composed “Total Praise” in 1996. His composition has been a heart song for many African-American congregations, and it has become popularized more broadly through its inclusion in a number of denominational hymnals, including the African-American Heritage Hymnal (#113), Lead Me, Guide Me 2nd ed. (#457), and the recent Psalter collections Lift Up Your Hearts (#420) and Psalms for All Seasons (#121B). The song’s concise and heartfelt message echoes Psalms 121 and 24:

Lord, I will lift mine eyes to the hills
Knowing my help is coming from you...
You are the source of my strength,
You are the strength of my life,
I lift my hands in total praise to you.

The hushed, plaintive sentiment of the opening lines grows both in dynamics and intensity to meet the powerful chorus. With its gospel harmonies and singable, satisfying melody, this song epitomizes the idea of “sung prayer.” The voices of the people come together to make a powerful statement on God’s faithfulness, and on our response of reverence and gratitude. Accompany this piece with praise band instrumentation: piano or keyboard, drum kit, and bass. If you prepare the harmonies beforehand with the choir, they can serve as a support to the voice of the assembly.

Part of the impact of this song comes from its slow build to the climax—both emotional and dynamic—of the chorus and the thrilling final “amen.” Its impact is derived, in some ways, from the same structural idea as Ravel’s Bolero, the Beatles’ “A Day in the Life” from Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, or Rufus Wainwright’s Go or Go Ahead; a sustained growth across the whole song from a hushed piano opening to a roiling, full-throated climax.

This is a song that speaks from the heart. I asked some friends what moves them about Smallwood’s song. One said that its gradual buildup is like an oncoming storm, which you first see in the distance and which overtakes you with its power by the end. Another alluded to a flood of emotions that well up from deep within the worshiper in enormous gratitude for God’s care and love, a gratitude mirrored by the “distance” of the hills described by the hushed opening.

Hear "Total Praise" here.

Which of these songs might become a new heart song for your community? Try it this February – or any time – and find out. You’ll be amazed at what can happen once you break into song.

I am grateful to Andrew Butler and Geoffrey Moore for sharing their experience of “Total Praise” with me.

The Government of Canada has a resource page with information about notable Black Canadians, and videos celebrating Black History Month.

For more ideas about enlivening worship through congregational song, visit

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