Were You There?

This is another of those old spirituals believed to have originated from those enslaved on antebellum plantations in the south. Forbidden by law to be taught to read and write, but still forced to adopt Christianity, many bible stories were told in music. This particular song tells the story of Christ’s crucifixion. It first appeared in print in 1899 in William Eleazar Barton’s Old Plantation Hymns. In 1940 it became the first spiritual to be included in a major religion’s hymnal when it was published in the Episcopal Church hymn book. This song has been recorded by a wide range of performers; form large choirs to country singers. If you check YouTube for videos of this song, it seems Johnny Cash has the most videos.

All versions that I know of have a very simple structure. The verses consist of a single line repeated 3 times and have 3 verses that tell of (1) nailing Christ to the cross, (2) placing him in the tomb, and (3) rising from the dead. First I wanted to tell more of the story, including all that happened in the week preceding the crucifixion. So I added a verse about Jesus’ arrival in Jerusalem on Palm Sunday, one about sharing the bread and wine at the last supper, and one about His betrayal in the garden, being led away by the Roman soldiers. Then I decided to add more information to each verse, so there are two or three different lines. That also applies to the three verses about the crucifixion. However, I do the first verse in its traditional form. So this is my interpretation of this old song to tell a better, more complete story.

Listen to a 1 minute preview of this track here: