August 19, 1943 – January 15, 2018
'Oh Happy Day,'
African-American Contemporary Gospel Song
Arr. Edwin Hawkins
'O Happy Day That Fixed My Choice,' Hymn;
UMH, No. 391
By. Rev. Philip Doddridge, D.D.
A contemporized hymn refrain, 'Oh Happy Day' is recognized as one of the most popular and single most important contemporary African-American Gospel songs of its time. Initially recorded by the Northern California State Youth Choir (1968), 'Oh Happy Day' was re-released (1969) as a single, recorded by the Edwin Hawkins Singers—a single that would sell seven million copies and earn a well-deserved Grammy.
'O Happy Day That Fixed My Choice' is an English hymn text penned by Rev. Philip Doddridge, D.D. (1702-1751). Appearing in posthumous publications of Doddridge's hymnody—the first, published in 1755—this hymn, according to religious scholar, Françoise Deconinck-Brossard, expresses the benchmark ideals of British nonconformity: "A personal conversion experience and Puritan Covenant theology." Undoubtedly theologically compatible with the nineteenth-century Evangelical movement and its derivative musical genre, Gospel hymnody, Doddridge's hymn acquired the following refrain:
Happy day, happy day, when Jesus washed my sins away! He taught me how to watch and pray, and live rejoicing ev'ry day; Happy day, happy day, when Jesus washed my sins away!
By this time, this hymn was published in the Wesleyan Sacred Harp (1855; edited by Methodist Episcopal pastor William McDonald [1820-1901]) and was paired with the tune HAPPY DAY (1854), attributed to composer Edward F. Rimbault (1816-76). Toward the end of the twentieth century, this hymn's stanzas take a back seat to its refrain, which is altered melodically by Gospel musician Edwin Hawkins. By the end of the twentieth century, the African-American Gospel arrangement of 'Oh Happy Day" gained much popularity, thus yielding Edwin Hawkins's present-day notoriety as the "Father of Contemporary Gospel."
Gospel icon, Edwin Hawkins, was born and grew up in Oakland, California. Hawkins was reared in the Church of God in Christ, the largest African-American Pentecostal denomination. As a child, Hawkins participated in the music ministry of Ephesians Church of God in Christ, a church for which he would later become Minister of Music, following his predecessor, Gospel music arranger and choir director, Ola Jean Andrews (b.1929). Though later sharing musical success with his younger brother (the late Bishop Walter Hawkins), Edwin Hawkins was the "family trailblazer" as the Edwin Hawkins Singers founder. Edwin's trailblazing efforts led him to establish the Edwin Hawkins Music and Arts Seminar in 1982, nine years after Bishop Walter Hawkins (then elder) founded the Love Center Church. The Edwin Hawkins Music and Arts Seminar provides workshops addressing many facets of Gospel music and the industry.
Edwin Hawkins, the "father of Contemporary Gospel," gained this honorific with the success of his Gospel arrangement, 'Oh Happy Day.' Jacqueline Cogdell Djedje notes the following, "'Oh Happy Day' was successful because the jazz and popular music harmonies, rhythms, and instruments included in the song produced a sound not often identified with Gospel [music] at that time." The sound of contemporary Gospel music was influenced and shaped by the stylings of Edwin Hawkins.
One is left to his/her own speculation when trying to determine why Edwin Hawkins chose this particular hymn. Perhaps, Hawkins gravitated to this hymn, as led by the Holy Spirit— commonly referred to as the Holy Ghost in the Holiness-Pentecostal Church/Movement— because it reflected a particular reality with which he could relate. An Evangelical movement of its own, also perpetuated by revival (Azusa Street, 1906), Pentecostalism embraces a theology that emphasizes being saved from sin through the cleansing blood of Jesus Christ. This salvation results in a personal, life-changing relationship with Jesus Christ, among other things. Hawkins idiomatically sets this refrain, which reflects the belief of his church: "We believe that the only means of being cleansed from sin is through repentance and faith in the precious Blood of Jesus Christ." Of course, scripture reminds us, "But God commendeth his love toward us, in that, while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us (Romans 5:8); …the blood of Jesus Christ his Son cleanseth us from all sin (1 John 1:7b); Watch and pray, that ye enter not into temptation: the spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh is weak" (Matthew 26:41).
Since its release, 'Oh Happy Day' continues to be a Gospel music staple, having crossed over into the mainstream broadcasts of rhythm, blues, and pop stations throughout the United States. Perhaps one of the most significant arrangements of Hawkins's selection was recorded by Jazz pianist Ramsey Lewis on his album, With One Voice (2005). In the wake of the passing of Gospel Legend, Edwin Hawkins, let us remember our happy day: the day when we allowed our sins to be washed away by the Savior of the world.
Françoise Deconinck-Brossard. "O happy day, that fixed my choice." The Canterbury Dictionary of Hymnology. Canterbury Press, accessed January 17, 2018, http://www.hymnology.co.uk/o/ohappy-day,-that-fixed-my-choice.
Françoise Deconinck-Brossard. "Philip Doddridge." The Canterbury Dictionary of Hymnology. Canterbury Press, accessed January 17, 2018, http://www.hymnology.co.uk/p/philip-doddridge.
Holy Bible, King James Version
Jacqueline Cogdell Djedje. "Edwin Hawkins Singers" in Encyclopedia of American Gospel Music., edited by W.K. McNeil. (New York: Routledge, 2005) 115.
Donté A. Ford serves as Assistant Professor of Music and Associate Chaplain for Worship Arts at Wheaton College in Wheaton, IL. He also serves as Member at Large for the Society of Christian Scholarship in Music and the Assistant Director of the James Abbington Church Music Academy. He is an alumnus of Penn State and Southern Methodist Universities and is currently completing a Ph.D. in Musicology at University of Arizona in Tucson, AZ. Donté remains active as a church musician and is the Founder and Artistic Director of Sankofa Chorale.