Tuesday, July 21, 2009

There is a Balm in Gilead

SONG: There is a Balm in Gilead

WRITTEN BY: Traditional

PERFORMED BY: Paul Robeson, Mahalia Jackson, Rahsaan Roland Kirk, et al.

APPEARS ON: Paul Robeson: Paul Robeson Live at Carnegie Hall (Vanguard) & Songs of Free Men/ A Paul Robeson Recital (Sony); Mahalia Jackson: In Concert Easter Sunday, 1967 (Columbia Europe - an import, but reasonably priced); Rahsaan Roland Kirk: I, Eye, Aye: Live at the Montreux Jazz Festival, 1972 (Rhino - amazingly, this has been discontinued, but it’s still available used or as an mp3 download)

This blog’s founder, the redoubtable Citizen K, was kind enough to ask me to become a contributor; actually, K asked me this some time ago, but as life has a way of doing, my schedule conspired to make any writing beyond my usual take on Robert Frost’s Banjo impractical. I’m glad that I finally have the time to contribute to Just a Song.

By way of further (brief) introduction, I should say that while my musical tastes are eclectic, I’ll probably be concentrating on old-time music in my contributions here, with some forays into jazz; & the first song I chose to write about illustrates this—it’s the old spiritual “Balm in Gilead.”
I’m not a religious person—not even a “believer” in the conventional sense of the word—but I find the spirituals to be incredibly moving music, & this beautiful song is most certainly can be described as "moving." I’m familiar with three recorded versions, all of which are memorable. These are by Paul Robeson, Mahalia Jackson & Rahsaan Roland Kirk—two vocal versions & one instrumental. I’ll discuss the versions, but first a bit of background on the song.

The title is taken from the Old Testament, specifically Jeremiah chapter 8 v. 22: "Is there no balm in Gilead? Is there no physician there? Why then is there no healing for the wounds of my [God's] people?" As such, it not only describes the condition of a spiritual exile—a common theme in 19th century U.S. hymns—for instance “Poor Wayfaring Stranger,” in which the Christian pilgrim is moving from this unreal physical world to the “real” world of heaven where all wounds will be made whole & all will be reunited. One can only imagine the power of such a concept to people in the actual bondage of slavery, taken from their native land & subject to severe wounds, physical, psychological & spiritual.

But looked at from the perspective of one like myself who’s focused on our mortal life & not on a life to come, the song reminds me that there is a place where despair can be healed—a place within perhaps (tho these spatial references always tend to get us in trouble, don’t they?) The music reinforces this sense of peace with its stately swing & its movement between major & minor chords (the verse actually ends on a minor chord, which then resolves to major leading into the chorus). For those who don’t know, minor chords tend to produce a darker, sadder harmony, while major chords tend to provide a brighter, more happy sound.

According to Wikipedia, some of the lyrics are related to an 1854 hymn by one Washington Glass, tho it appears his hymn borrowed heavily from a John Newton hymn from 1779. In addition, the second verse seems traditional—this same verse or a close variation of it turns up in a number of old spiritual songs, & probably dates to the beginning of the 19th century or earlier.

All three performances we’re sampling are extremely moving: Robeson’s rich & operatic basso rendition with a simple piano accompaniment, Mahalia Jackson’s dramatic version, backed by both piano & organ, & Rahsaan’s passionate instrumental. It’s interesting to contrast Robeson’s & Jackson’s versions—both singers liked slow tempos, but Robeson’s “Balm in Gilead” moves along in a steady andante (not fast, but moving along at a “walking” pace), while Jackson soars in a rubato largo (a slow but free tempo for you non-musician types)—so slow that it seems the next downbeat will never come. This type of tempo invites exploration, & Jackson not only improvises with the rhythm; she also creates some beautiful improvisations on the original melody, while Robeson renders the melody closely (& magnificently). Needless to say, both versions work extraordinarily well.

Finally, we turn to one of my all-time favorite jazz musicians, Rahsaan Roland Kirk, for an instrumental version captured from his show at the Montreux Jazz Festival in ’72. Kirk was in fine form that day, as witnessed by the album I, Eye, Aye—why Rhino decided to discontinue this album is beyond me, but looks like there are plenty of used copies available, as well as mp3s. In his introduction to the song (on the album, not on the clip), Kirk mentioned the idea of “getting the song in your ear” & making it your own—this was one of his gifts. In the process he remakes this old spiritual on clarinet & tenor sax, turning it into a soaring march such as you’d expect at a New Orleans funeral. If you’re not familiar with Rahsaan Roland Kirk, he frequently played more than one wind instrument—as many as three simultaneously. To describe this makes it sound like a novelty, but Kirk’s playing is always much more than that. My wife Eberle talks about Kirk as having an “orchestral” mode of thinking, & that’s certainly on display here. It’s also worth noting that Kirk’s clarinet playing here is superb—so dramatic, & making full use of the instrument’s wide range; & although Kirk is the main focus, his backing bands were always top-notch—among other things, Kirk was known for playing with excellent pianists, & Ron Burton is no exception here. I wonder about Joe Texidor smoking a cigarette while playing the tambourine, however! I should note that on the I, Eye, Aye album there’s an intriguing intro that didn’t make it into this (or any other) YouTube video clip.

Lyrics are as follows:

There is a balm in Gilead
To make the wounded whole;
There is a balm in Gilead
To heal the sin-sick soul.

Some times I feel discouraged,
And think my work’s in vain,
But then the Holy Spirit
Revives my soul again.


If you can’t preach like Peter,
If you can’t pray like Paul,
Just tell the love of Jesus,
And say He died for all.



  1. Welcome aboard! Great writeup; I especially enjoyed the explanation of the tempi and the impact of minor chords. I've known Robeson's version for years, but the other two are new to me.

    The attraction of spirituals and gospel to those of us who are not believers is a mysterious thing. I They speak to some reservoir of hope and spirituality that all people must have, even those of us who find neither in religion or faith.

    Speaking for myself, I find my spirituality in music. So, it makes perfect sense that music about spirituality would move me in a special way.

  2. Thanks K:

    I think about music in a similar way, tho for me playing is the primary thing. Still there are artists whose playing always seem to strike a "spiritual" chord with me--Rahsaan Roland Kirk is definitely one of them.

  3. how absolutely wonderful to hear this song again - just wonderful and made my day! thanks so much for sharing such beauty!

  4. and a very moving narrative accompanying it - beautiful -

  5. Hi Jenean:

    Glad you enjoyed it--& yes, that's the kind of song that can make your day.

  6. I prefer the Robeson. There is something about that deep bass voice that lends itself to the soulfulness (if that's not redundant) of this piece. I don't think you need to be a believer to feel the power of this spiritual. Excellent article.


  7. Thanks Kat! Robeson's voice is pretty much amazingly good.

  8. If you like this song, have a listen to Cyndee Peters on the album A Family Affair by Leon and Eric Bibb. Her rich and magnificent vocals together with the beautiful harmony of Leon (Eric's Dad) make this an uplifting experience. I love the Paul Robeson version as well; what a wonderful voice he had.

  9. thank you for posting!! I've been looking for older versions of this song! I love it.