Text: African American Spiritual Tune: American folk/maybe a spiritual?
1 Jesus walked this lonesome valley; He had to walk it by himself. Oh, nobody else could walk it for him; He had to walk it by himself.
2 We must walk this lonesome valley; We have to walk it by ourselves. Oh, nobody else can walk it for us; We have to walk it by ourselves.
3 You must go and stand your trial; You have to stand it by yourself. Oh, nobody else can stand it for you; You have to stand it by yourself. NB: NOTE TO READERS In thirty days I will have been doing the hymnblog for a year. I intend to be done with the daily meditations then. It has been a wonderful journey and a great blessing for me to share my knowledge, experiences and passions with others. I am thinking of continuing by doing only one a week, exploring new and old (often unfortunately forgotten) treasures for my readers. If you have any suggestions or ideas about what you would like me to do, please contact me. Blessings to you all. G
It must have been in the late 1950s. We had it in our Luther League meetings. A little booklet, with a canary yellow cover, which I cannot find in the seminary library. If I remember it was 5 1/2 inches by 8 inches, folded in two, so the songs were small and the notes and texts were free hand. This was years before computers or programs like Finale. But it was a sign of something breaking in, something new coming. I can't remember any other songs in it, but I can see "Jesus Walked this Lonesome Valley" clearly in my memory.
Some readers might still have the booklet, but in my downsizing, etc., I have lost track of that one so this is pure memory.
As with all spirituals, the history is unclear. The text shows how "anonymous" creates texts: there is a structure that repeats and then someone in the group adds a similar kind of phrase that can be sung with the refrain, or the stanza. One can be sure, too, that the group hones the phrase down making it better. It could be secular or sacred as our various versions of it on Youtube show. It was an old practice, from forever, to parody old hymns, like "The Sweet Bye and Bye" and make it into another kind of song, like a labor protest song, as Joe Hill did. "There'll be pie in the sky, bye and bye." Lonesome Valley, as many might remember, was used in the folk revivals and protests of the 1960s with secular words for the situation, as per Pete Seeger, Joan Baez and Mary Travers. It is very likely there are many other additions to the song that have been sung to meet various situations.
The version with Jesus in it--and here there are added stanzas too--is suggested as a hymn for the First Sunday in Lent. It could refer to the temptations of Jesus in the wilderness. For certain, Psalm 23 informs the text. the valley of the shadow of death. The word "valley" resonates in our minds as we sing it and we think of Psalm 23. Jesus knew that he was completely alone as he cried out on the cross, "My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me." Nobody else could walk it for him as no. one can walk it for us. The song really calls us to account. No one else can repent for us or face our ending for us. Nobody else can do that for us. We do die alone, no matter how many are with us at the time. It is a sobering song.
The Christian imagination is steeped in Scripture, and has an archive of images in mind that don’t need to be explained or footnoted.
Such talk between those who know the language of Canaan can go deep and wide between them. Hymns can refer to such imagery without explanation—Here I raise my Ebenezer. Put out the fleece. Or Jimmy Carter saying that he had committed adultery with women in his heart. Well versed Christians knew what he was saying. The press went nuts, however, showing how little they knew of biblical language.
It is also true that while we can use useful codes with each other, they can’t be used in conversations with those who are not fluent in Christian talk. Apologists, or missionaries, are aware of that and spend a lot of time learning the language of the ones to whom they are talking so they can communicate.
This also means that hymn writers have to assess who their audience is. Insiders don’t need elaboration on images; outsiders do. Which is why many hymns today tell the biblical stories rather than allude to them.
Sometimes, however, the language is general enough to communicate both inside and outside. People know what a valley is whether they know Psalm 23 or not. Those who do know the biblical references are more richly rewarded by the image than others, but the language communicates to both. The Christian versions of this song, the first two on the links, are more explicit, telling the story of Jesus death, his dying alone, maybe because people need that. The last stanza in the Birmingham Boys Choir version saying that we do not have to walk alone into the valley of death because Jesus goes with us is an innovation which makes sense. As the faith becomes less generally known hymn writers need to be more explicit. Christians have more work to do as missionaries than ever before. Their songs should work on both sides now!
HYMN INFO Once again, we have no idea about this song. It is called a spiritual, but some are not sure. Some have thought it could be among those known as white spirituals, and used on both sides of the color line, but we don't know. We do know that it became popular in the 1950s and has continued to have a place in the song of Christians who are facing death or a dark time. The movie O Brother Where Art Thou? with the Fairfield Four has a religious version with a variant on the text.
Jesus Walked the Lonesome Valley https://youtu.be/xSSmHj-uBzw
Birmingham Boys Choir https://youtu.be/KZATAFWDBi8
Folk singer hymn version
from O Brother Where Art Thou? https://youtu.be/IAs4L9AKUKk
Joan Baez and Mary Travers singing secular version https://youtu.be/Pt64OQETmO0