Robert Lowry How Can I Keep From Singing?

Brid­get Mer­mikides tran­scribes this soul­ful hymn that’s been sung by ev­ery­one from Enya and Pete Seeger, to Eva Cas­sidy and Bruce Spring­steen.

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How Can I Keep from Singing? is a Chris­tian hymn writ­ten in the 1860s by the Amer­i­can Bap­tist min­is­ter, lit­er­a­ture pro­fes­sor and gospel hymn com­poser Robert Wadsworth Lowry (1826-1899). Al­though Lowry wrote the mu­sic (first pub­lished in the 1869 song book, Bright Jew­els for the Sun­day School), it is un­clear where the orig­i­nal words – which speak of a cel­e­bra­tion of faith even in the darkest of times - came from. These are gen­er­ally cred­ited as ‘anony­mous’ al­though an ad­di­tional “When tyrants tremble…”verse was added by the author and ac­tivist Doris Plenn (1909-1994) in the 1950s folk re­vival, as a barbed protest against McCarthy­ism.

The sim­ple but in­fec­tious melody (a re­peat­ing 16-bar strophic form) cou­pled with these in­spir­ing lyrics has been re­pub­lished count­less times, and is a favourite of choirs and mu­si­cians through the gen­er­a­tions, adopted by the Quaker (and their sub group the Shaker) com­mu­nity - to whom it is of­ten mis­at­tributed. It has been per­formed and recorded by a wide range of artists and com­mu­ni­ties from Quaker, Catholic and gospel choirs, to the 1950-’60s folk-re­vival move­ment artists like Pete Seeger, to the Celtic pop-folk genre- most no­tably Enya in 1991 (who ran into some le­gal hot water by us­ing Plenn’s verse, mis­tak­enly as­sum­ing it was pub­lic do­main). Its pop­u­lar­ity shows no signs of abat­ing with ver­sions by Bruce Spring­steen, blue­grass mu­si­cian Lau­rie Lewis, singer ex­traor­di­naire Eva Cas­sidy and a host of ‘pop-choral’ acts.

The main melody (which is of­ten har­monised) is en­tirely from the Ma­jor Pen­ta­tonic scale (in my ar­range­ment it’s E ma­jor: E-F#-G#-B-C#). This scale is found in a star­tlingly wide range of mu­sic cul­tures - al­most a fun­da­men­tal mu­si­cal ‘truth’. Whether it’s be­cause it is so singable (lack­ing any semi­tones), or that it is the most evenly five notes can be stretched across the 12 notes of an oc­tave (a max­i­mally even pat­tern), or that it is closely linked to the ‘nat­u­ral’ har­monic se­ries, it is found in some form in al­most ev­ery an­cient and con­tem­po­rary mu­si­cal style. This may ex­plain the wide pop­u­lar­ity of How Can I Keep from Singing? as well as how it is so nat­u­rally adapted to all these dif­fer­ent styles.

Here I’ve ar­ranged the 16-bar melody four times with four dif­fer­ent ap­proaches, in or­der to cre­ate a sense of build and vari­a­tion. The first verse (bars 1-16) states the melody very sim­ply with min­i­mal ac­com­pa­ni­ment and the least tech­ni­cal chal­lenge. The sec­ond verse (bars 17-32) adds some more har­monic in­ter­est and some poly­phonic rhyth­mic move­ment re­quir­ing a more chal­leng­ing melody and ac­com­pa­ni­ment technique. Bars 33-48 em­ploy a harp-like cam­panella technique where ad­ja­cent (of­ten open string) notes over-ring in cas­cades rem­i­nis­cent of bell ring­ing (you’ll hear sim­i­lar tech­niques em­ployed in clas­si­cal, celtic and coun­try gui­tar con­texts). The fi­nal verse from bar 49 restarts the melody with more gospel blues or soul har­mon­i­sa­tions and lit­tle melodic in­flec­tions. The tab cap­tions will guide you through all these to help you get this time­less piece un­der your fin­gers.

NEXT MONTH Brid­get ar­ranges Re­quiem in D Mi­nor by Wolf­gang Amadeus Mozart

the si mple melody with in­spiri ng lyrics has been re­pub­lish ed count­less times and is a favouri te of ch oirs and mu­sici ans

Lowry was a Bap­tist min­is­ter, pro­fes­sor and com­poser

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