Text: Cleavant Derricks (1910-1977) Tune: arr. Cleavant Derricks (1910-1977)
1. I once was lost in sin but Jesus took me in And then a little light from heaven filled my soul He bathed my heart in love and He wrote my name above And just a little talk with Jesus makes me whole:
R/Now let us have a little talk with Jesus, Let us tell Him all about our troubles, He will hear our faintest cry, He will answer by and by And when you feel a little prayer wheel turnin' And you will know a little fire is burnin' Find a little talk with Jesus makes it right.
2. I may have doubts and fears, my eyes be filled with tears, But Jesus is a friend who watches day and night, I go to him in prayer, He knows my every care And just a little talk with Jesus makes it right.
Every summer when I was growing up, we would look forward to the coming of the Augsburg Quartet, either to our congregation or to a Bible Camp near us. Usually seminary students, attractive young men, who could sing. They were often funny and lively in their banter and we loved it. Their task was the recruitment of new students for the college and seminary, but more so, the raising of money for both. Most every school, it seemed, had such a group. These were the heydays of barbershop quartets which grew especially popular after the Civil War and continued until electric guitars and huge speakers of rock and roll drove them away.
The concerts would start with more formal pieces. The audience would enjoy these but waited for the last third of the concert when the more popular material, the crowd pleasers, were presented. This one was among the more popular, with the bass solo on the chorus. The internal rhymes are well wrought and fun. In addition to being fun, it is a fine introduction to prayer with phrases we remember and can use as we think of what it means to pray: "Tell him all about our troubles, he will hear our faintest cry and answer by and by. Just a little talk with Jesus makes it right." Amen. (Scholars think the prayer wheel was used by African Americans in their prayers so it does not refer to the Buddhist prayer wheel, they say.)
The sources for this hymn/spiritual are murky. They go into the time of slavery, where sources are not easy to find. There are also printed versions from after the war where one can see the development of the song over time. In them we can also read the rise of groups like the pioneering Fisk Jubilee Singers who sang an early version of it in their concerts. The singers were a sensation after the Civil War when they brought spirituals into the limelight during their tours. Fisk University in Nashville was founded in 1866 to offer a liberal arts education to any student regardless of color. Five years later it was in “dire financial straits.” The treasurer and music professor George I. White got the idea to take a student musical group on tours to raise money for the school. They left on October 6, 1871, a Jubilee day they still commemorate as historic. They were dubbed Jubilee Singers by their director after they rose to the challenge of helping the victims of the Chicago fire which had occurred just after their concert tour began. They made $50 which they contributed to the victims.
At first they were met with a variety of responses, but gradually, they became much sought after performers. Despite the racism they had to deal with on their tours—difficulties finding hotels or restaurants that would serve them—they persevered. They started making money to support the school. They sang at a World Peace Festival in Boston in 1872. President Ulysses S. Grant invited them to sing at the Whitehouse.
The next year they toured Europe with great success, singing for Queen Victoria. The money they raised there went to fund the building of Jubilee Hall on the campus, now a historic landmark, where a room sized portrait of the group commissioned by the Queen hangs to this day.
Not only did the singers break down some racial barriers in their singing, but the composers who wrote for them published their songs so everyone could sing them. There are several versions of the spiritual, one prepared by John Wesley Work II, (1871-1925) an early composer, collector and arranger of spirituals for choral performance. He directed the Jubilee Singers until 1923. They have continued their tours, singing around the world, in 2007 they toured Ghana. PBS has filmed a documentary series on their work that has won awards, Jubilee Singers: Sacrifice and Glory.
Derricks, the compiler and arranger of this most popular and well known version, was born in Chattanooga, and, upon showing talents in music, attended the Cadek Conservatory of Music. Derricks began working with Stamps-Baxter publishers. This song appeared in Harbor Bells (1937). After WWII he studied for the ministry at American Baptist Theological Seminary and served Ebenezer Baptist Church in Knoxville. He served several other congregations, one in Beloit, Wisconsin, and Pleasant Grove Baptist Church in Washington, D.C. Needing money for major medical bills, he went to Canaanland Music in Nashville, wanting to record a song. They discovered he had never been adequately paid for his works. He and his family recorded this song in 1975. He died of colon cancer in 1977. He is the father of twins who have been successful actors and musicians in Hollywood.
The spiritual is a treasure in the history of American song. One can see on Youtube it is still very popular. The Oak Ridge Boys won a Grammy for their recording of it in 1977.
The Oak Ridge Boys