Rise up, shepherd, and follow

Origins. The text of this spiritual was first published in Lippincott’s Monthly Magazine, vol. 47, January 1891, in the middle of a fictional story called “Christmas Gifts” (pp. 104-115 | Fig. 1) by Ruth McEnery Stuart (1852–1917). The story takes place in a location called Sucrier Plantation in Louisiana, and the song is described in the context of a group of slaves performing for their master. The song was given with two verses, the first of which appeared later in other publications and has endured as part of the ongoing publication history of the song.


Fig. 1. Lippincott’s Monthly Magazine, vol. 47, January 1891.

Stuart was born in Louisiana and lived there many years before eventually moving to New York City in the 1890s. She seems to have transcribed a real plantation song rather than creating one for the story, although it’s impossible to say to what degree of accuracy Stuart may have recorded the song, if it isn’t entirely original. White writers have been known to compose new spirituals in the style of old slave songs, “Sweet little Jesus boy” being one prominent example (written by Robert Mac Gimsey in 1934). Stuart’s story was repeated in her book A Golden Wedding and Other Tales (NY: Harper & Brothers, 1893 | PDF).

Stuart’s version of the song was set to music by Kate Douglas Wiggin (1856–1923), who is known mostly as an advocate for kindergarten education programs in the U.S. and as a writer. Wiggin’s setting was dated 1893 and published in a small collection, Nine Love Songs and a Carol (NY: Houghton Mifflin & Co., 1896 | PDF). The song and the collection as a whole were dedicated to the Wellesley Glee Club. In this score (Fig. 2), the text was drawn from Stuart’s 1893 book and credited to her, and the music was credited to Wiggin, but labeled “To be sung after the fashion of a plantation melody.” The verses bare some resemblance to the versions of the spiritual that would be published later, but otherwise her composition is too harmonically and structurally complex to be an accurate imitation of a plantation melody. Having lived primarily in Maine, California, and New York, her exposure to plantation music was likely very limited, probably informed by touring groups from the south.

Fig. 2. Nine Love Songs and a Carol (NY: Houghton Mifflin & Co., 1896).

Stuart’s version of the spiritual appeared once more in her collection Plantation Songs and Other Verse (NY: D. Appleton & Co., 1916 | Archive.org), pp. 70-71, except in this printing, the end of each verse was extended as follows:

Rise up, shepherd, an’ foller!
Foller, foller, foller, foller,
Rise, O sinner, rise an’ foller,
Foller de star
F’om near an’ far—
Foller de star o’ Bethlehem!

Another version of the spiritual appeared in The Young Woman’s Journal, vol. 11, no. 12 (Dec. 1900 | Fig. 3), in an article “The folk songs of America” by Clara Eames (pp. 552-560), whose husband Henry Purmort Eames (1872–1950) was director of the piano department at the University of Nebraska and had toured the country extensively as a concert pianist in the 1890s. Unfortunately, the article says little about how the songs were collected, except one of the other songs had been acquired from North Carolina. This version of “Rise up, shepherd,” printed without music, is similar to Stuart’s version in many respects, but with some minor differences in wording in many places and an entirely different second verse. This printing would seem to give weight to the argument that Stuart’s version was something she had collected rather than written herself.


Fig. 3. The Young Woman’s Journal, vol. 11, no. 12 (Dec. 1900).


The spiritual then emerged through the music program at Hampton University in Virginia. The school had a longstanding venture of publishing collections of spirituals, originally gathered from its student singers. The song was published in the school’s journal, The Southern Workman, vol. 31, no. 2 (February 1902 | Fig. 4), p. 122, with music. The text of this version, numbered in two verses, is the same as the complete first verse and first refrain from The Young Woman’s Journal. The music is far more consistent with traditional spirituals than what had been composed by Wiggin, and this printing contains the flatted seventh in the refrain, which is one of the most characteristic, recognizable features of the song. Again, the great misfortune here is that the song appeared without explanation as to how it was collected.


Fig. 4. The Southern Workman, vol. 31, no. 2 (February 1902), p. 122.


Curiously, when this spiritual appeared in the school’s next official collection, Religious Folk Songs of the Negro (Hampton: Institute Press, 1909 | Fig. 5) it included some additional lines from The Young Woman’s Journal that had been omitted in the 1902 printing (“Leave yo’ sheep,” etc.). These appear as part of the refrain.


Fig. 5. Religious Folk Songs of the Negro (Hampton: Institute Press, 1909).


Seventeen years later, Hampton professor R. Nathaniel Dett published another edition of Religious Folk Songs of the Negro (Hampton: Institute Press, 1927) with updated versions of many of the spirituals. For this edition, he explained:

A comparison of this edition with almost any of the previous ones will show that the way many of the Negro folk-songs are sung at present is quite different from that recorded nearly a half-century ago. … A study of differences seems to indicate that ‘the principle of ease’ rather than mental reaction to new conditions has been the force most operative in bringing about variations from originals.

Regarding this spiritual, he noted specifically, “From ‘Rise up, shepherd’ a verse has fallen into disuse.” He may have meant the portion of the refrain beginning “Leave yo’ sheep,” which is absent here. Other changes include the presence of fermatas and some additional harmony.


Fig. 6. Religious Folk Songs of the Negro (Hampton: Institute Press, 1927).


The note at the bottom of the page referring to the characteristic flat seventh of the refrain, reads as follows in the Appendix:

It is not as low as the flat represents it to be, yet it is lower than the pitch indicated by the seventh of the scale would be without the flat. It is what Mr. Ballanta-Taylor calls a “neutral” pitch and has been for years the marvel as well as the bête noire of transcribers of these songs. Its occurrence in various songs has given rise to the statement often heard that Negro music cannot be properly interpreted on the piano (or any other instrument with fixed pitches).

Many modern hymnals and collections print the shorter version of the song, as in 1902 and 1927, but some scores and arrangements still retain the longer version of 1909.

In spite of this song having originally appeared in a fictional story, it was regarded by Eames and Hampton as being an authentic spiritual, and it is probably safely regarded this way. The setting by Wiggin may have been based on or inspired by a tune she heard, but it is composed and presented in such a way that it ought to be regarded primarily as a new composition by her. The Hampton versions have become the normative basis for all subsequent publications of the song.

Analysis. Textually, the spiritual is based on the account of the shepherds and angels in Luke 2:8-20 while at the same time drawing from the story of the star in Matthew 2:1-12, conflating the two (with a nod also to Mark 10:28-30). Some worshipers and/or leaders might object to the juxtaposition; in this case, it is possible to remove the star language and substitute words from early versions of the song, such as verse 2 from Stuart’s version. This way, the heritage of the song is preserved while also maintaining fidelity to the biblical text. Eames’ version relies on the star imagery throughout both verses, including an application for modern worshipers. A three-verse extended version of the song is theoretically possible in a shepherds–magi–application structure, but this would involve some extensive editorialism.

for Hymnology Archive
3 December 2018
rev. 19 February 2019

Related Resources:

Ethel C. Simpson, “Mary Routh McEnery Stuart,” The Encyclopedia of Arkansas History and Culture:

Joan Wylie Hall, “Ruth McEnery Stuart,” American National Biography, vol. 21 (NY: Oxford University Press, 1999), pp. 80-81.

“Kate Douglas Wiggin,” Encyclopedia Britannica:

MaryJean Gross & Dalton Gross, “Kate Douglas Wiggin,” American National Biography, vol. 23 (NY: Oxford University Press, 1999), pp. 351-352.

Henry Purmort Eames Papers, University of Nebraska:

“Rise up, shepherd, and follow,” New Oxford Book of Carols, ed. Hugh Keyte & Andrew Parrott (Oxford: University Press, 1992), pp. 574-575.

Carl P. Daw Jr. “Rise up, shepherd, and follow,” Glory to God: A Companion (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2016), pp. 140-142.

“Rise up, shepherd, and follow,” Hymnary.org: