Were You There: A Fascinating Spiritual
For the last 30 years, “Were You There” has been included in almost every paramount hymnal, impressive, isn’t it? It is one of the most popular and noteworthy American-African spirituals. Just like most other spirituals, “Were You There” origins are, somehow, absurd to trace. Made not from the pen of an artistic individual but out of the slave experience from communals.
During the creation of this hymn, the number of questions that makes the hymn’s basis is, apparently, not to be taken in a literal context. Of course, we were not physically present during the passion of Christ, so it surely doesn’t make sense if it’s taken too literally. Instead, these questions are made to function as a type of anamnesis — “to remember”. However, it is pretty much a mental remembrance of events.
“Were You There” was published in 1899 Old Plantation Hymns by William Eleazar Barton. Later in 1940, the hymn was then included in the hymns of the Episcopal Church, making it the very first spiritual to be part of major American hymnal. The song was also one of the favorites of Mahatma Ghandi, as reported in an autobiography of Howard Thurman. It was also covered by famous singers, such as Johnny Cash, Marion Williams, Max Roach, Harry Belafonte, Diamond Version, Rajaton, and Daimanda Galas.
Generally speaking, “Were You There” is also an anamnetic hymn that is made to bring back Christ’s events about his suffering and succumbing into the arms of death and change us. Truly this song is one-of-a-kind. From its creation by slave experiences to holding a spot on America’s hymnal. There is indeed more to this song than meets the eye.