"Gospel music is hymns," my Gospel-style piano teacher told me. An amazing musician, he held two bachelor degrees in music from Jackson State, and was the music director emeritus of a large African-American church in Chicago. His statement, out of context, might have raised a few questions, but I knew what he meant.
Of course black Gospel music is more than the Reformation-based, European SATB songs of the 16th through the 20th century. Black Gospel has had plenty of its own great composers that have written using the structure of hymnody (e.g. Thomas Dorsey, Andrae Crouch, Richard Smallwood). However, I think a point that my teacher was making was that congregants of African-American churches do additionally connect with certain hymns written by non-black composers (e.g. Fanny Crosby), and that there are hymns that can also sound really powerful when there's some "Gospel flavor" added. So, I'd like to continue the conversational blog series about such hymns.
Before, I talked about "I Am Thine, O Lord." Now, I'm talking about "What A Friend We Have In Jesus."
The senior pastor of a multicultural church I served, after 20 years, was retiring. A very good Gospel soloist wanted to sing this hymn before his last Sunday. I was happy to accompany her on the piano. I knew the drill: she wasn't going to sing it traditionally and in tempo, and I wouldn't be helping her if I stuck with the 1-3-5 chords in the hymnal. What came to be was a little similar to Aretha Franklin's performance of it., except we had no choir and we were more laid back. If I could give my personal advice for this song: fill in the vocal rests with embellishments in the upper register and augment the dominant as often as you can. Lyrics below:
What a friend we have in Jesus, all our sins and griefs to bear! What a privilege to carry everything to God in prayer! O what peace we often forfeit, O what needless pain we bear, all because we do not carry everything to God in prayer!
Have we trials and temptations? Is there trouble anywhere? We should never be discouraged; take it to the Lord in prayer! Can we find a friend so faithful who will all our sorrows share? Jesus knows our every weakness; take it to the Lord in prayer!
Are we weak and heavy laden, cumbered with a load of care? Precious Savior, still our refuge-- take it to the Lord in prayer! Do your friends despise, forsake thee? Take it to the Lord in prayer! In his arms he'll take and shield thee; Thou wilt find a solace there.