There is a balm in Gilead

based on
How lost was my condition
Hark, the voice of Jesus crying

with BALM IN GILEAD

Origins. This spiritual has a complex, multi-threaded history of variants and influences before being published in its recognized form in 1907. The main idea of the song comes from Jeremiah 8:21-22 (ESV):

For the wound of the daughter of my people is my heart wounded;
    I mourn, and dismay has taken hold on me.
Is there no balm in Gilead?
    Is there no physician there?
Why then has the health of the daughter of my people
    not been restored?

The healing balm of Gilead is also mentioned in Genesis 37:25 and Jeremiah 46:11.

The textual roots of the spiritual date to 1779, in a hymn by John Newton, from Olney Hymns, called “The Good Physician” (Fig. 1), which begins:

 

Fig. 1. Olney Hymns (1779).

 

In 1859, Newton’s hymn appeared in Hiram Mattison’s Sacred Melodies for Social Worship (NY: Mason Brothers | Fig. 2), with a chorus reading, “There’s a balm in Gilead to make the wounded whole,” and a melody called BALM IN GILEAD. The melody has some foreshadowings of the spiritual, but it is not the same.

Fig. 2. Hiram Mattison, Sacred Melodies for Social Worship (NY: Mason Brothers, 1859).

This combination of text and tune appeared in Joseph Hillman’s The Revivalist (Troy, N.Y.: J. Hillman, 1868). This version of the melody is much closer in shape to the spiritual melody that would come later, and it is the version that would continue to be frequently used with Newton’s text.

Fig. 3. Joseph Hillman, The Revivalist (Troy, N.Y.: J. Hillman, 1868).

The following year, a new hymn by Daniel March (1816–1909), “Hark, the voice of Jesus crying,” appeared for the first time in multiple collections, including Songs of Gladness for the Sabbath School, compiled by J.E. Gould (Philadelphia, 1869 | Fig. 4). The third stanza includes the lines, “If you cannot speak like angels, if you cannot preach like Paul, you can tell the love of Jesus, you can say he died for all.” The tunes cited here (pp. 44 and 57) are BLESSED COMFORT by J.E. Gould and MOZART attributed to W.A. Mozart. Some sources credit the hymn to Bright Jewels for the Sunday School (1869), but in that collection, the first line of the text had been altered to “Hark, the voice of Jesus calling,” and the authorship was credited to “V.A.” The author’s preferred version of the text was supplied to Charles Nutter for his Hymn Studies (1884 | Google Books).

Fig. 4. J.E. Gould, Songs of Gladness for the Sabbath School (Philadelphia, 1869).

It stands to reason that these early sources, via unknown avenues over the course of 30+ years, had been cycled through oral tradition among African Americans in the late 1800s. In one snippet of what could be a variant of this spiritual, a graduate of Hampton University, Dennis F. Douglas, class of 1876, wrote to the school’s journal, The Southern Workman, speaking of his experience teaching in South Carolina and Georgia, and said, “Our folks sing a song running like this, ‘Though I cannot sing like Silas, neither can I preach like Paul, I can tell the wondrous story; free salvation is for all” (vol. 25, p. 196).

The recognized form of the spiritual was collected for Folk Songs of the American Negro, No. 1 (Nashville: Fisk University, 1907 | Fig. 5), edited by Frederick J. Work of Fisk University. This first published version of the spiritual contained three stanzas, including a slight variation on the text from Marsh in stanza 3.

 
  Fig. 5.  Frederick J. Work,  Folk Songs of the American Negro , No. 1 (Nashville: Fisk University, 1907).

Fig. 5. Frederick J. Work, Folk Songs of the American Negro, No. 1 (Nashville: Fisk University, 1907).

 


Unfortunately, the editor offered very little detail about how this song was collected, noting only in the preface that “We think there are in this little book some songs that have not been generally known save in certain small localities.” In speaking about the nature of the repertoire in general, he wrote:

If there is any expression to describe this music fitly, this seems to be it: Syncopated, Rhythmic, Sacred Melody. The syncopation gives it a peculiar advantage in representing musically the idea of the words. … Rhythm; omit that and you have lost an essential attribute. The very soul of the Negro is linked with rhythm. … So natural is it, and such a powerful hold has it upon the nature of the Negro that when he really sings in earnest, he sings not only with his voice, but with his head, hands, feet, and even his whole body. … To sing these songs correctly, the stranger must be in a spiritual frame of mind. Then too, he must not try to sing—that is, he must not try to impress people with his voice, or voice culture, but must abandon himself entirely to his spiritual nature. This done, there is no need for fear or failure.

The song was recorded by the Fisk Jubilee Singers only two years later, in 1909, digitized and preserved by the Document Records company on volume 1 of their chronological collection (Amazon | iTunes).

by CHRIS FENNER
with JOE HERL
for Hymnology Archive
28 September 2018
rev. 15 October 2018


Related Resources:

“How lost was my condition” at Hymnary.org:
https://hymnary.org/text/how_lost_was_my_condition

“Hark, the voice of Jesus crying” at Hymnary.org:
https://hymnary.org/text/hark_the_voice_of_jesus_calling_who_will

J.R. Watson & Carlton Young, “Hark, the voice of Jesus crying,” Canterbury Dictionary of Hymnology:
http://www.hymnology.co.uk/h/hark,-the-voice-of-jesus-crying

“There is a balm in Gilead” at Hymnary.org:
https://hymnary.org/text/sometimes_i_feel_discouraged_spiritual

J.R. Watson & Carlton Young, “There is a balm in Gilead,” Canterbury Dictionary of Hymnology:
http://www.hymnology.co.uk/t/there-is-a-balm-in-gilead