Lonesome Valley | arr. Jay Althouse — jwpepper1876
OK, let’s acknowledge something right off the bat. I wouldn’t have posted this to the blog if I knew the bass part for tomorrow’s traditional service. OK, not the entire bass part. The song is mostly in unison, anyway. But there’s a nice little riff at the top of page 4 I don’t quite have down yet.
And I think it really adds something to the arrangement. Or will, if I listen to it enough on YouTube and get comfortable with it.
It’s one of those moving bass lines you find in bluegrass or Southern gospel, bending the notes in “… we-ee won’t walk” and “by our-sel-lves.” When I was singing shape-note music, we called these riffs Arkansas counterpoint, and they help make a lot of modern church music sound insipid by comparison. You can hear it on the piano in the video above from 1:05 to 1:14.
So I took my music folder home after choir practice Wednesday, and found our arrangement online. It’s titled “Lonesome Valley,” with additional words and music by Jay Althouse, a prolific composer and arranger of Raleigh, N.C.
At the same time, I’ve been trying to journal the ancient practice of lectio divina (literally, “sacred reading”), a spiritual discipline that combines prayer, meditation and reading the psalms or other scripture. Jesuit author and magazine editor James Martin sums up the practice like this: Read, Think, Pray, Act.
So, I thought, why not combine the two? Mix in a little spiritual practice with the choir practice? A Sunday morning choir anthem isn’t exactly scripture, but, after all, lectio divina began with the psalms, and they were contemporary worship music back in the day.
“Lonesome Valley” is billed as a traditional spiritual with additional words and music. Well, that it is. But Althouse’s arrangement changes its message considerably.
According to Wikisource, it’s an “old American traditional gospel folk song,” first recorded in 1927 and sung by the Carter Family, Woody Guthrie, Elvis Presley and others. Legendary blue artist Mississippi John Hurt’s version is typical. It starts, “You got to walk that lonesome valley / Well, you got to walk it for yourself,” goes through a familiar progression — mother, father and Jesus walked the lonesome valley — and concludes:
Oh yes, you got to walk that lonesome valley
Well, you got to walk it for yourself
It’s nobody else can walk it for you
You got to walk that valley for yourself.
Woody Guthrie sang the same refrain, and a couple of his own, including:
There’s a road that leads to glory
Through a valley far away,
Nobody else can walk it for you,
They can only point the way.
“Mamma and daddy loves you dearly,” he adds, and “They may beg you to go with them,” but they can’t walk the valley for you.” In the end, he says,
I’m gonna walk that lonesome valley,
I’m gonna walk it by myself,
Don’t want to nobody to walk it for me,
I’m gonna walk it by myself.
What we’re singing in church tomorrow takes that and turns it on its head. According to a blurb by J.W. Pepper & Sons, the distributor, Jay Althouse’s version is all about comfort and community:
The blessed assurance of Jesus’ constant presence in our lives is often hard to remember in times of stress and trouble. This thoughtful arrangement of the traditional spiritual gently reminds us that “When we walk this lonesome valley, we don’t walk it by ourselves.” Suitable for general worship when comfort is needed as well as memorial and funeral services.
Althouse, a prolific composer, arranger and educator who lives in Raleigh, N.C., starts with the traditional refrain, “Jesus walked this lonesome valley / He had to walk it by himself,” changing only the word “that” to “this,” which would give it a sense of immediacy appropriate for worship. But then, I think, he changes the traditional folk song into something quite different:
When we walk this lonesome valley;
we won’t walk it by ourselves.
No, Jesus is there, He’ll walk beside us.
We won’t walk it by ourselves.
Althouse’s arrangement is structured like a pop song, and the bridge speaks of a “valley more beautiful than I have ever seen,” and “walk[ing] with the Lord as my guide.” I’ve got to admit it — the recovering English major in me rebels at this. It feels like it’s taking a Mississippi blues singer’s artistic statement and turning it into a Hallmark greeting card. But I’ve also got to admit — Woody Guthrie’s anthem, “Don’t want nobody to walk it for me, I’m gonna walk it by myself,” isn’t exactly going to cut it for corporate worship, either.
Other authorities, including the Dominican Sisters of Springfield, summarize this step under the rubric, Reflect. Fr. Martin, suggests a form of meditation, starting with this question: “What is God saying to me through the text?”
To which my answer would be: Which text?
As a matter of historical fact, Mississippi John Hurt had to walk his own path through life. So did Woody Guthrie. Hurt was one of those bluesmen who cut a few records in the 1920s and 30s, returned to rural poverty and wasn’t rediscovered — and lionized — until late in life. Woody Guthrie went against the grain, too, once singing, to the tune of a ballad about Jesse James, “If Jesus was to preach [today] like He preached in Galillee / They would lay Jesus Christ in His grave.” Perhaps not quite the right note for corporate worship.
But Jay Althouse’s arrangement is.
If Mississippi John Hurt had tried to sing Althouse’s lyrics as a sharecropper in 1927, or at a Greenwich Village club in 1965 (he didn’t, obviously), they would have sounded hopelessly anodyne and out of place. But for a memorial service or a funeral — or the first Sunday in Lent — I think they work. Althouse does convey a sense of community.
And there’s always that bass line.
As long as we’re entertaining hypotheticals, I’ll bet Johann Sebastian Bach would have liked the Arkansas counterpoint, if he were writing Southern gospel tunes, or musical settings for memorial and funeral services, instead of his own counterpoint. Soli Deo Gloria.
The Dominican Sisters’ mnemonic, which is based on words that begin with “r,” lists this step as Reflect. They counsel, “Respond with your heart to the ideas and feelings that word or phrase generates.” Fr. Martin is more direct. He asks, “What do I want to say to God about the text?”
Prayer, I’m beginning to realize, is a two-way street. And it’s something, I’m also realizing, I can learn to do. So I’m going to try some of both.
My response to the message in Jay Althouse’s arrangement — “When we walk this lonesome valley; / we won’t walk it by ourselves” — is one of gratitude. It’s as if I respond to Mississippi John Hurt and Woody Guthrie with one side of my brain and a worship leader like Althouse with the other. I wouldn’t want to play the blues (assuming I had the chops, which I don’t) for the traditional service on the first Sunday in Lent at Peace Lutheran Church, either.
But I can sing words like “we won’t walk it by ourselves” with conviction.
In the past few months, Debi and I have walked down several valleys. Illness in the family, trips to the emergency room, hospitalization, sick pets, a nasty and dispiriting personal vendetta in a support group, the assorted aches, pains and premonitions of aging — and all of this against the backdrop of a world devolving into what an observer of the British scene aptly calls a “clustershambles.”
It’s been almost a year now, in fact, since I decided to seek spiritual direction and begin this journal (or blog or whatever, I’m still not sure what to call it) while I was in the hospital with pneumonia exacerbated by COPD.
Let’s put it like this — I feel like Debi and I have walked down the valley, and I’ve learned something about prayer. And I’ve learned something about gratitude. From hospital visits — huge! you have no idea how moving they are unless you’ve had them — to the prayers, best wishes and expressions of healing energy on Facebook, even clicks on the “like” or “sad” emojis. All of this tells me we’re not walking alone, and I couldn’t be more grateful.
So I’m in a different place when I respond to Althouse’s lyrics about walking with Jesus beside us, and I’m responding out of a different side of my brain. I see Jesus — or the hand of God — in the visits, the FB messages, the floor nurses and doctors, all …
LATER, IN THE MORNING, 3-17: There I left it last night. Some new concerns arose during the night and I posted this to the Dominican Sisters’ prayer request page: “Praying that God will walk with us, guide, heal and protect me, my wife Debi, our family and friends as we care for each other and the animals in our care; and deal with loss and illness. Prayer of gratitude for concern and kindnesses shown to us; and for strength, wisdom and compassion so we can help the others as they have helped us.”
This can be short …
Fr. Martin, whose meditations tend to reach me where the rubber hits the road, suggests, “What do I want to do, based on my prayer? Finally, you act. Prayer should move us to action, even if it simply makes us want to be more compassionate and faithful.”