Ride on, King Jesus
Origins. This spiritual was first published in Jubilee Songs Complete as Sung by the Jubilee Singers of Fisk University (NY: Biglow & Main, 1872 | Fig. 1), with three stanzas and a refrain. The song was given only with a melody, not harmonized.
The Jubilee Singers were students at Fisk, most of whom had been former slaves. George Leonard White (1838–1895), Fisk’s treasurer and music professor, gathered the group and took them on tour to help raise money for the school, leaving Nashville, Tennessee on 6 October 1871. During a successful campaign stop in New York City, they established a connection with publisher Biglow & Main. The task of transcribing the group’s songs fell to Theodore Seward (1835–1902), a prominent musician and music editor at the time. In the preface, Seward offered some observations:
In giving these melodies to the world for the first time in a tangible form, it seems desirable to say a few words about them as judged from a musical standpoint. It is certain that the critic stands completely disarmed in their presence. He must not only recognize their immense power over audiences which include many people of the highest culture, but, if he be not thoroughly encased in prejudice, he must yield a tribute of admiration on his own part, and acknowledge that these songs touch a chord which the most consummate art fails to reach. Something of this result is doubtless due to the singers as well as to their melodies. The excellent rendering of the Jubilee Band is made more effective and the interest is intensified by the comparison of their former state of slavery and degradation with the present prospects and hopes of their race, which crowd upon every listener’s mind during the singing of their songs.
This song was included without changes in every subsequent edition of The Story of the Jubilee Singers through the edition by F.J. Loudin (1892 and reprints), but it was not included in collections edited by F.J. Work in the early 20th century. It was reclaimed in American Negro Songs and Spirituals (NY: Bonanza Books, 1940 | Fig. 2), edited by John W. Work III (1901–1967). In this version, the text has been changed to say “No man can hinder him,” which is sensible, but it shifts the tone of confidence away from the singer/believer.
It did not have a presence in hymnals until the African American Heritage Hymnal (2001). Instead, it was popularized as a concert spiritual in arrangements for solo voice and/or choir, as early as Ten Negro Spirituals for Medium or Low Voice (Boston: Oliver Ditson, 1916).
Analysis. The song can be seen as either a depiction of Jesus’ triumphal entry (Matthew 21, Mark 11, Luke 19, John 12), or given the “milk-white horse” image in stanza two, Christ’s glorious return in Revelation 19. The claim “no man can hinder me” is reflected in Romans 8:31, “If God is for us, who can be against us?”
Variant. Another spiritual with a similar refrain but very different music and different stanzas is “Ride on, King, ride on King Jesus, ride on conquering King, I want to go to heaven in the morning,” as in the National Baptist National Jubilee Melodies (1916 | Fig. 3), and also given in Natalie Curtis Burlin’s Negro Folk-Songs, Hampton Series, Book 1 (1918). Burlin said the song “was brought to Hampton from St. Helena’s Island, South Carolina.” Accordingly, it was included in St. Helena Island Spirituals (1925).
by CHRIS FENNER
for Hymnology Archive
10 April 2019
Eileen Southern & Josephine Wright, African-American Traditions in Song, Sermon, Tale, and Dance, 1600s–1920: An Annotated Bibliography, The Greenwood Encyclopedia of Black Music (NY: Greenwood Press, 1990).