Text; African American Spiritual Tune: Anonymous/Hall Johnson (1888-1970)
Lord I keep so busy praisin' my Jesus Keep so busy praisin' my Jesus Keep so busy praisin' my Jesus Ain't got time to die 'Cause when I'm helpin' the sick (I'm praisin' my Jesus) When I'm helpin' the sick (I'm praisin' my Jesus) When I'm helpin' the sick (I'm praisin' my Jesus) Ain't got time to die R/'Cause it takes all of my time (It takes all of my time, it takes it all) All of my time (to praise Him) If I don't praise Him the rocks are gonna cry out Glory and honor, glory and honor Ain't got time to die Lord I keep so busy workin' for the kingdom (workin' and I'm workin') Keep so busy workin' for the kingdom (workin' and I'm workin') Keep so busy workin' for the kingdom (workin' and I'm workin') Ain't got time to die 'Cause when I'm feedin' the poor (I'm workin' for the kingdom) When I'm feedin' the poor (I'm workin' for the kingdom) When I'm feedin' the poor (I'm workin' for the kingdom) Ain't got time to die
Martin Luther King Day, today. I wanted to find a hymn that was his favorite and feature that, but I already have: "Precious Lord, Take my Hand". https://www.hymnfortheday.com/post/hymn-45-take-my-hand-precious-lord
He asked for that hymn to be sung at a service he attended just before he was shot. Many other spirituals and hymns made his list—he loved music and was fond of many hymns and spirituals.
This was among the songs listed as his favorites. It has an interesting but murky history. Hall Johnson, the prodigy who arranged it, suggested that it was one he heard from his grandmother, who had been a slave.
Johnson, a member of the Harlem Renaissance movement, was an accomplished musician. He had heard the nephew of Fredrick Douglass playing the violin and decided to be a violinist, violist and pianist. He became a member of the Negro String Quartet which played to great acclaim around the world.
However, in the middle of the 1920s, he turned to choral works. He became a collector of old spirituals like those he had heard from his grandmother and set them into anthems he arranged for choirs. He established the Hall Johnson Negro Choir in 1925. It sang many of his compositions and arrangements of spirituals, to great acclaim.
The choir also participated in the production of The Green Pastures in 1930, a play using spirituals to tell its story. Johnson wrote the sound tracks for many Hollywood films and also the music for plays such as “Run, Little Chillun.”
He was so fluent in French and German that he was a coveted teacher for singers in the Metropolitan Opera company, as well as the great Marian Anderson, along with Robert McFerrin and Shirley Verrett. Many singers included his arrangements of spirituals in their repertoire.
Johnson’s work as a classical composer, taking the best spirituals of the black tradition and setting them so they became art songs used by many recitalists, brought him renown. A graduate of the all-black Knox Institute, he attended Julliard School of Music as well as the University of Pennsylvania. His choir was featured on the soundtracks of Lost Horizon, Snow White, and Dumbo and was asked by the State Department to represent the USA at the International Festival of Fine Arts in Berlin in 1951.
This hymn was among King's favorites for its urgency, its mission impulse and social gospel emphasis. He was himself "too busy to die." Tragically, he had had clear premonitions of his death which we can hear in his last speech. The song has retained its place in the repertoire of many choirs from many different backgrounds because of its association with King as well as its composer whom those looking for black composers have found to be in the top ranks. We can remember Johnson today for his compositions, his great gifts as a musician and his work in the context of racism in the United States.
The song is something we all can sing about our own Christian vocations—we are to help the sick, the poor, and otherwise work for the kingdom while praising Jesus, something King wholeheartedly believed.
HYMN INFO This was published in Johnson’s collection Spirituals, published around 1925-1930. The bios are exceedingly unhelpful with dates, but it must have been about that time since his choir premiered the spiritual about then. It has become very popular for a cappella choirs to sing.
Ernest Davis and the Wilmington Chester Mass Choir
UGA Combined Choirs https://youtu.be/XVgzQKcQUZQ
Howard University Chamber Choir
Concordia choir with Rene Clausen https://youtu.be/kgM1Df76S5c
Robert McFerrin, Bobby McFerrin's father
NB: Lent is only a month away. A wonderful Lenten discipline is reading the Passion hymns, one for every day of Lent, by Icelandic poet Hallgrímur Pétursson. Follow the link to buy it and receive it in time.