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The Music of Mourning: This One Thing I Know

I can't possibly understand the loss, the rage, the inconsolable psychic damage felt by the friends and family member and parishioners and constituents in Charleston, South Carolina, and beyond. I can only pray.
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It's a simple little ditty, recorded by accident during a documentary on homelessness in England. No one knows the name of the little man who sings it, not even musician Gavin Bryars, who recorded the song and later made it the centerpiece of his groundbreaking album, Jesus Blood Never Failed Me Yet:

Jesus' blood never failed me yet, never failed me yet
Jesus' blood never failed yet.
This one thing I know, that he loved me so.
Jesus' blood never failed me yet.

Through ninety minutes of sweet, subtle string accompaniment, the unknown homeless man's cracking voice is repeated hundreds of times. The end result is a meditative marvel, a soothing, renewing mantra. I've given away many copies of the CD through the years. I've listened to it many more times in my darkest hours. It's never failed me yet.

I have my copy out again. In the next few days, following the unspeakable, horrific act of terrorism in Emanuel A.M.E. in Charleston, I will play it again and again. It won't ease the pain, but it provides a small sphere of solace, at least for a time.

I can't possibly understand the loss, the rage, the inconsolable psychic damage felt by the friends and family member and parishioners and constituents in Charleston, South Carolina, and beyond. I can only pray.

When the grieving period is over, I will do the things I know how to do: support efforts to register more voters, lobby my congressional representatives to take action to stop this epidemic of violence, donate to the causes I believe in. I don't know what else to do right now.

But this one thing I know.

In the next few days, people in Charleston and across the globe will sing, once again, Thomas A. Dorsey's anointed paean to loss and hope, "Take My Hand, Precious Lord." It has been sung at the funerals of African Americans for nearly a hundred years and has achieved sacred status in the singing. "Precious Lord" is as much a part of the homecoming service as the prayers, the wearing of black, the flowers, and the sermon. It is on these consoling words that both those who have gone before -- and those will someday join them -- place their hopes and dreams and fears:

Precious Lord, take my hand
Lead me on, let me stand
I'm tired, I'm weak, I'm lone
Through the storm, through the night
Lead me on to the light
Take my hand, precious Lord, lead me home

"Through the storm, through the night" -- that's where we are right now. By singing this song together, by being together, by praying together, we'll get through to the light.

This one thing I know.

I know that in the hours to come, there will be groups of people, black and white, male and female, religiously oriented and not, who will come together and sing "We Shall Overcome." While the song is most associated with the Civil Rights movement, it is now sung wherever and whenever people are oppressed. I've seen arise spontaneously, time and time again, sometimes by singers too young to have heard it in Selma or Memphis.

"We Shall Overcome" is unique among the best-known Civil Rights freedom songs in that it is never accompanied by rhythmic clapping. Instead, movement protocol -- which is still followed today -- dictates that singers must cross their arms over their chests and clasp hands with those on either side.

The meaning is clear: If we are to overcome this -- whether it is in Charleston or Ferguson or Birmingham or anywhere in the world -- we will only overcome it together, standing together, holding on together. Grief is too big to tackle alone.

This one thing I know.

And somewhere, someone will recall the words of Aeschylus, just as Robert Kennedy did 47 years ago when, just before taking the stage in Indianapolis, he heard of the brutal murder of Dr. Martin Luther King and reported it to the disbelieving crowd:

Even in our sleep, pain which cannot forget
falls drop by drop upon the heart,
until, in our own despair,
against our will,
comes wisdom
through the awful grace of God.

Kennedy's quotation of 2,500-year-old words by a long-dead Greek poet helped soothe a tiny fraction of the pain that day.

This is what I believe. Each time we sing together -- drop by drop -- we counter the darkness, the fear, the anger, the pain. We sing because we have to.

There will be much time for singing in the days ahead, as the funerals begin in beautiful old Charleston. If you feel overwhelmed with hate or confusion or loss, listen to me, believe me in this: find a group of loving people who feel the same way you do and sing with them. It doesn't need to be a church, although you'll find like-minded people there who are struggling with the same things you're struggling with. If a stranger offers to hold your hand while you sing, that's a good thing.

And if you cry, know that your Creator is crying with you. Right now. You do not sing or cry alone.

Robert Darden is the author of Nothing But Love in God's Water: Black Sacred Music from the Civil War to the Civil Rights Movement, Volume I (Pennsylvania State University Press, 2014).

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