History of Hymns: ‘Just a Closer Walk’ remains a traditional song for jazz funerals

“Just a Closer Walk with Thee”
Anonymous
The Faith We Sing
, No. 2158

I am weak, but thou art strong;
Jesus, keep me from all wrong;
I’ll be satisfied as long
as I walk, let me walk close to thee.

Just a closer walk with thee,
grant it, Jesus, is my plea,
daily walking close to thee:
Let it be, dear Lord, let it be.

The origins of the gospel song “Just a Closer Walk with Thee” are unknown. As is the case with many hymns, knowing where a song came from, while interesting and helpful at times, is not as important as the witness of the hymn itself in the lives of those who sing it. Such is the case of this venerable song.

The first witness may be found in the testimonial nature of the text. The anonymous composer feels “weak” and lives in a world of “wrong.” The only way to be “satisfied” is by invoking Jesus who is “strong” and by walking closely beside him. It is the daily close walk with Christ that leads one to become more Christ-like. As James 4:8 notes, “Come close to God, and God will come close to you. Wash your hands, you sinners; purify your hearts, for your loyalty is divided between God and the world.” (New Living Translation)

In the second stanza, the singer seems to be despondent in a “world of toil and snares.” The first rhetorical question posed is, “If I falter, Lord, who cares?” A second question—“Who with me my burden bears?”—receives a welcome response, “None but thee.”

The third stanza leads us where many gospel songs take us—to heaven. The one with whom we walk in life will “guide me gently, safely o’er to thy shore.”

The second witness is the wide range of recording artists who have sung this song. While not exclusively used in the African-American community, it is a song strongly identified with African Americans. The Selah Jubilee Singers, a black gospel quartet, made the first known recording of the song in 1941. They were known as the first gospel group to play in the famed Apollo Theater in New York City.

Following this recording are many black and white gospel recordings including the Sallie Martin Singers (mid-1940s), Pat Boone (1957), Tennessee Ernie Ford (1957), Ella Fitzgerald (1967), Joan Baez (1969), Bob Dylan and Johnny Cash (1969) and many others including the Boston Community Choir in a tribute to Senator Ted Kennedy at the John F. Kennedy Library (2009).

Perhaps no witness is stronger than the now traditional use of the song in New Orleans jazz funerals. The confluence of French and Spanish martial music placed within the African-American cultural context began near the start of the 20th century. For the first half of the century the white community did not consider the jazz idiom appropriate for the church and the Catholic Church did not approve of secular music at a funeral.

Beginning in the 1960s, the practice of the jazz funeral spread across social and ethnic boundaries to the point that it became an honor to have a jazz procession where musicians would participate as a sign of respect for the deceased person. While not the only song played on the funeral procession from the home, funeral home or church to the cemetery accompanied by family, friends and a brass band, “Just a Closer Walk with Thee” remains the traditional tune most associated with this event, especially as a dirge.

These days the music can also include funk and hip hop. Of course, another popular tune of a more upbeat nature is “When the Saints Go Marching In.” However, these songs are usually saved for after the burial, when the band leads the celebration out of the cemetery.

Dr. Hawn is professor of sacred music at Perkins School of Theology.

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