Jesus, the Light of the World

Yesterday a small but enthusiastic group of Sacred Harp singers (one bass, two tenors, two altos, and two trebles) got together for what was essentially our holiday singing: music from the 1991 Sacred Harp appropriate for Advent, Christmas, the Winter Solstice, and New Year’s. (Some information on shapenote singing here and here.) Afterwards we had a nice dinner together and talked of many things, some of then shapenote-related.

We had sung one version of “Hark! The herald angels sing”, a tune named Cookham (81b), which is quite different from the well-known Christmas carol tune (called Mendelssohn, after its composer). The bass [correction: it seems it was one of the tenors] then wondered about yet another song, a gospel tune that begins with the words “Hark! the herald angels sing”, but then continues with “Jesus, the Light of the world”, all to still another tune, which would sound great harmonized in Sacred Harp style, but apparently never has been.

For the most part, existing tunes from other sources, in particular folk and gospel traditions, are very slow to move into the shapenote tradition, although a few have made it. Instead, people are more likely to write brand-new music for old texts. But the tune for “Jesus, the Light of the world” would be a good candidate for a shapenote harmonization.

I already had a version of the song as performed, elegantly, on the Boston Camerata album An American Christmas (1993). Now I’ve picked up a Kathleen Battle version and two gospel versions. The liner notes for the Boston Camerata album give a source:

The Finest of the Wheat: Hymns New and Old for Missionary and Revival Meetings and Sabbath-Schools (Chicago, 1890), “Geo. D. Elderkin, arr.”

Here are the words for this version, quite suitable (it seems to me) as a joyous Christmas hymn:

Hark! the Herald angels sing,
Jesus, the Light of the world;
Glory to the newborn King,
Jesus, the Light of the world.

[Refrain]
We’ll walk in the light, beautiful light,
Come where the dewdrops of mercy are bright,
Shine all round by day and by night,
Jesus, the Light of the world.

Joyful, all ye nations, rise,
Jesus, the Light of the world.
Join the triumphs of the skies,
Jesus, the Light of the world.

Hail the heav’n-born Prince of peace,
Jesus, the Light of the world.
Hail the sun of righteousness,
Jesus, the Light of the world.

It turns out that the words have been rewritten fairly recently so as to remove the Christmas references and generally sweeten the song, while largely preserving the refrain. This version is attributed here as follows:

Words by Ken Bible and George D. Elderkin
Music by George D. Elderkin; arr. by Ken Bible

The new words:

See the Bright and Morning Star,
Jesus, the Light of the World!
He has risen in our hearts,
Jesus, the Light of the World!

Refrain: Walk in the Light, beautiful Light;
Come where His love and His mercy are bright.
Shine all around us by day and by night,
Jesus, the Light of the World.

He’s the Lamp that lights our way,
Jesus, the Light of the World!
Step by step and day by day–
Jesus, the Light of the World!

No more darkness, no more night–
Jesus, the Light of the World!
He will shine forever bright,
Jesus, the Light of the World!

I’m all for the Elderkin original.

4 Responses to “Jesus, the Light of the World”

  1. nbmandel Says:

    Pity to abandon the dewdrops of mercy.

    We sang “Cookham” at our singing in Brooklyn this week, too. It’s a nice little thing.

  2. Blessed Assurance « Arnold Zwicky's Blog Says:

    […] Arnold Zwicky's Blog A blog mostly about language « Jesus, the Light of the World […]

  3. Black keys « Arnold Zwicky's Blog Says:

    […] That’s certainly true of the music written or set by the incredibly prolific gospel composer Fanny J. Crosby (who was definitely white); lots of people find it hard to imagine that, say, “Blessed Assurance” can be anything other than African American in its origin (link). And look at the songs by the (white) gospel composer George D. Elderkin, for instance “Jesus, the Light of the World” (link). […]

  4. Phaud Muller Says:

    “Jesus the Light of the World” is my favorite old-time gospel song, and I have it on a record album that was probably produced in the 60s. On that album it is sung by a sister Wilie Johnson, an apostolic preacher from that era. I’ve had the album many decades and the words “walk in the Light, beautiful Light, come where the dewdrops of mercy shine bright” are simply enchanting to the soul. However, I don’t know who actually wrote the song or put it to music.

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