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.
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