Were you there when they crucified my Lord?

First printing. This popular spiritual was first published in Jubilee Songs as Sung by Slayton’s Jubilee Singers (Chicago: Thayer & Jackson, ca. 1884-1885 | Fig. 1). Slayton’s Jubilee Singers were assembled in Chicago after the founding of Henry L. Slayton’s Lyceum Bureau in 1874. This group was separate from (and later than) another group called Slayton’s Ideals, which was started in 1881. The collection was edited by M.G. Slayton.[1] Slayton’s version of the spiritual contained three stanzas/variations: crucified, nailed, and laid. The opening notes include the familiar arpeggio, 5–1–3, and the second phrase follows with 1–3–5, but notice how Slayton’s version does not have an elongated “Oh” at the beginning of phrase three, and only two trembles. The harmonization, like many early spirituals, has a very basic chord structure limited to I, IV, and V.

This was reprinted and reharmonized in Original American Folk Songs as Sung by Glazier’s Carolinians (1904 | HathiTrust), based out of the Glazier Lyceum Bureau in Chicago.

Fig. 1. M.G. Slayton, Jubilee Songs as Sung by Slayton’s Jubilee Singers (Chicago: Thayer & Jackson, ca. 1884-1885).

Editions at Fisk University. Some of the most important printings of this spiritual came from the publishing tradition at Fisk University, starting with F.J. Loudin’s edition of The Story of the Jubilee Singers, with Supplement (Cleveland: Cleveland Printing & Publishing Co., 1892 | Fig. 2). As with other collections in this series, going back to 1872, new songs were added sequentially, with “Were you there” added as No. 131. Unfortunately, Loudin did not include any information about how the additional songs were collected; the song could have come from anywhere, such as from a new student whose hometown was in practically any neighboring state, or it could have been collected while the Fisk Jubilee Singers were on tour. This first printing differs from the later, normative version in the shape of the opening phrases of the melody. The first note of the third phrase (“O”) is not elongated in any particular way. The text has four stanzas or variations, covering different aspects of the Crucifixion narrative (crown of thorns, pierced side, tomb).


Fig. 2. F.J. Loudin, The Story of the Jubilee Singers, with Supplement (Cleveland: Cleveland Printing & Publishing Co., 1892).


The song was given in a more recognizable form in New Jubilee Songs as Sung by the Fisk Jubilee Singers (Nashville: Fisk University, 1902 | Fig. 3), edited by Frederick J. Work (1878–1942). This version was reprinted in Folk Songs of the American Negro (Nashville: Fisk University, 1907 | Fig. 4). Curiously, the 1907 collection contains the heading “New Jubilee Songs” on every page, not the 1902 edition, and the music for this song had been condensed into three systems. In this latter collection, the preface by John W. Work did not offer much guidance as to the collection and development of the songs. The evolution of the song since 1892 was not addressed, and yet we find several key developments since the first printing: (1) a significantly updated melody, (2) an echo part after the first line, (3) a new second stanza, “nailed him to the tree,” in place of “crowned him with the thorns,” (4) an added fourth stanza, “Were you there when the sun refused to shine,” (4) the inclusion of several fermatas, especially at “Oh!” and (5) a more sophisticated harmonization, including a secondary dominant chord in the third phrase.

The 1907 collection appeared in two editions; the one labeled “Number Two” also contained this song, printed from the same plates as the 1902 copy (Fig. 3).

Fig. 3. Frederick J. Work, New Jubilee Songs (Nashville: Fisk University, 1902).

Fig. 4. Frederick J. Work, Folk Songs of the American Negro (Nashville: Fisk University, 1907).

The song was repeated again in the similarly named (but much different in scope) Folk Song of the American Negro (Nashville: Fisk University, 1915). In this book, the song made three appearances. The song was given on page 51, text only, in three stanzas (“crucified,” “pierced,” “laid”). The full music version was given on page 100 using the same plates as New Jubilee Songs (1902) and Folk Songs No. 2 (1907). Lastly, the song was mentioned in a description of preaching:

To the preacher, these songs of the Negro are powers for arousing “feelings for the right.” It is hardly believable that any man could remain the same and unaffected, after singing in the spirit, “Lord, I want to be like Jesus,” or “Were you there when they crucified my Lord?” So it seems plain that the preacher who uses music to add momentum to the gospel is wise (p. 117).

Hampton Editions. Around the same time Frederick J. Work was printing “Were you there” at Fisk, it started to make appearances at Hampton University. Three lines of the song were quoted in an article by H.H. Proctor of the First Congregational Church of Atlanta, “The theology of the songs of the southern slave,” in Hampton’s journal, The Southern Workman, vol. 36, no. 11 (Nov. 1907), pp. 584-592. In his examination of the person and work of Christ as told through spirituals, he wrote:

They believed Jesus to be God’s Son come into the world to express his Father’s love and to bring back the sinning world to himself. That Christ had a double nature, though in what way was incomprehensible to them (as to us), was obviously their belief. They showed their belief in his divinity by ascription to him of supernatural power. He “rides in the middle of the air,” “walks upon the water,” “gives sight to the blind,” “rids death of its terror.” …

Thus they bore testimony to his divinity by their belief in his supernatural power, resurrection, royalty, regnancy, and atoning work. But to them he was also human. He was “a man of sorrows.” He could sympathize with those “acquainted with grief.” How solemnly and sweetly they sang of his crucifixion:

“Were you there when they crucified my Lord?
Were you there when they nailed him to the tree?
Oh, sometimes it causes me to tremble, tremble, tremble.”

Proctor’s quotes, coming from his work in Atlanta, should not be taken as an indication of the song being sung at Hampton. On the other hand, it does indicate a certain level of familiarity with the song, even in 1907 when its print history was still sparse. “Were you there” did not appear in a Hampton collection until 1909, in Religious Folk Songs of the Negro (Fig. 5).


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


A comparison of this printing with F.J. Work’s New Jubilee Songs (Fig. 3), shows them to be identical. In the preface to the Hampton collection, the editors acknowledged some of the songs were “courtesy of Professor F.J. Work of Fisk University.” Even though the song itself was not marked as being from Fisk (on the page or in the index, as some of the others were), the connection is inescapable.

Other Early Variants. One of the first appearances of the song following after the Fisk printing of 1892 was in William E. Barton’s Old Plantation Hymns (Boston: Lamson, Wolff and Co., 1899 | Fig. 6). Barton’s book is something of a running commentary and analysis of spirituals more than it is a songbook. In his opening paragraphs, he explained that he notated these songs while he lived in “the South” from 1880 to 1887. His introduction to this song was brief, not explaining where he heard it, but he mentioned the sublime affect of “the hold and slur on the exclamation ‘Oh!’ … and the repetition and expression of the word ‘tremble! tremble! tremble!’” The opening phrase of the melody of Barton’s version is close in shape to the 1892 Fisk version, but the rest is similar to the Fisk printings of 1902 and later. The four stanzas of text equate to the first four of the 1902 Fisk version.


Fig. 6. William E. Barton’s Old Plantation Hymns (Boston: Lamson, Wolff and Co., 1899).


Two early variants were recorded in the pages of the Journal of American Folk-Lore. The first was given in a brief report by E.M. Backus, “Negro hymns from Georgia,” in the Apr.–June 1897 issue, p. 116 (Fig. 7). This version has a few additional stanzas not printed elsewhere, proceeding from crucifixion to resurrection to glorification. Its indication of being from Georgia would certainly support the account by H.H. Proctor in 1907 that this song was known there. Columbia County is 140 miles from Atlanta.


Fig. 7. Journal of American Folk-Lore, vol. 10, no. 37 (Apr.–June 1897).


Another notable variant appeared in an article by Mary Walker Finley Speers of Earleigh Heights, Severna Park, Maryland, headed “Maryland and Virginia folk-lore,” in the Journal of American Folk-Lore, vol. 26, no. 100 (Apr.–June 1913), pp. 190-191 (Fig. 8). This printing is unique in the way it begins “I was there” rather than the questioning “Were you there?” and it has some stanzas not seen elsewhere, such as “I was there when he walked in Galilee,” and “I was there when they took him down.” Speers mentioned the song was “a prevalent camp-meeting hymn,” but she notated her version directly from a laundress, who sang it in an extremely high range.

Fig. 8. Journal of American Folk-Lore, vol. 26, no. 100 (Apr.–June 1913).

In 1903, the song appeared in a small collection of plantation songs appended to a fictional story by Anne Hobson, In Old Alabama: Being the Chronicles of Miss Mouse (NY: Doubleday, Page & Co., 1903 | Fig. 9). The story was written in dialect, in imitation, but much like Ruth McEnery Stuart (1852–1917) and “Rise up, shepherd, and follow,” the songs were likely transcribed or remembered from real experiences living in the American south. Unfortunately, not enough is known about Hobson to know if she had found these in Alabama or somewhere else. Hobson’s account of “Were you there” contained a full eight stanzas, including some that are not known outside of this book. How much of this is Hobson’s recollection and how much is her own invention is impossible to tell.


Fig. 9. In Old Alabama: Being the Chronicles of Miss Mouse (NY: Doubleday, Page & Co., 1903).


This song crossed racial boundaries as early as 1911 when it was published in two collections of gospel/revival hymns. One collection was Great Revival Hymns (Chicago: Rodeheaver-Ackley, 1911 | Fig. 10), the other was Songs of Evangelism, ed. H.R. Christie (Cincinnati: Standard Publishing, 1911). In both cases, the song was arranged by an unknown “T.M.T.” and included the verse, “Were you there when he burst the bars of death?”


Fig. 10. Great Revival Hymns (Chicago: Rodeheaver-Ackley, 1911).


The wide variety of sources, especially the earliest ones from Chicago, Nashville, Georgia, and (possibly) Alabama, within a span of 20 years, suggests that the spiritual already had a wide currency before its first known printing ca. 1884-1885, or it spread quickly via performances by Slayton’s Jubilee Singers and the Fisk Jubilee Singers. The Fisk version of 1902 (Fig. 3) was widely reprinted, including at Hampton (1909) and by white publishers, such as Homer Rodeheaver’s Plantation Melodies (1918), making it one of the most influential printings in the early 20th century. Many hymnals use an arrangement by C. Winfred Douglas (1867–1944), written for the Episcopal Hymnal 1940.

for Hymnology Archive
28 January 2019
rev. 6 February 2019


  1. See Sandra J. Graham, Spirituals and the Birth of a Black Entertainment Industry (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2018). Regarding the dating of Slayton’s Jubilee Songs: Southern & Wright, African-American Traditions in Song (1990), p. 206, gives 1882, but in correspondence with Graham, 6 February 2019, she wrote: “Although Southern dates the Slayton collection to 1882, I think it’s a little later. One of the songs in the book, ‘A Few More Years,’ is a commercial spiritual by H.J. Richardson (music) and Sam Lucas (lyrics); it was published as sheet music in 1885. There were two editions of this songster, however, with different covers, although the contents are exactly the same. My guess is that this collection is 1884 or 1885. The Slayton anthology is also very similar to J.J. Sawyer’s Jubilee Songs and Plantation Melodies (1884) as well as Glazier’s Original American Folk Songs (1904, as sung by the Glazier’s Carolinians).”

Related Resources:

George Pullen Jackson, “Have you heard how they crucified our Lord,” White and Negro Spirituals (NY: J.J. Augustin, 1943), pp. 220-221.

Marilyn Kay Stulken, “Were you there,” Hymnal Companion to the Lutheran Book of Worship (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1981), p. 192.

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).

Carlton R. Young, “Were you there,” Companion to the United Methodist Hymnal (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1993), pp. 685-686.

Horace Clarence Boyer, “Were you there when they crucified my Lord?” The Hymnal 1982 Companion, vol. 3A (NY: Church Hymnal Corp., 1994), no. 172.

Bert Polman, “Were you there,” Psalter Hymnal Handbook (Grand Rapids: CRC, 1998), p. 533.

Paul Westermeyer, “Were you there,” Hymnal Companion to Evangelical Lutheran Worship (Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress, 2010), p. 158.

Carl P. Daw Jr. “Were you there,” Glory to God: A Companion (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2016), pp. 231-232.

“Were you there when they crucified my Lord?” Hymnary.org:

J.R. Watson & Carlton Young, “Were you there when they crucified my Lord,” Canterbury Dictionary of Hymnology: