STJ#1024, When the Spirit Says Do

I feel like I have fallen down a strange rabbit hole this morning.

I have to begin by assuring you all that I have no doubt about the excellent work our STJ hymnal commission did in gathering, researching, and arranging the 75 songs in this hymnal supplement. I recognize that we are always learning more, always finding more resources, and of course always expanding our theological and ethical understanding.

But because singing these songs often leads me to curiosity about its origins or uses, I jump in the rabbit hole of the internet…. and today, this rabbit hole is leading not to comfortable underground warren but to something Lewis Carroll’s Alice might have encountered, were she a minister looking for information on the internet.

According to the hymnal, this is an African American spiritual from the civil rights period. When I go to the UUA Song Information page, I find that

This was one of the songs that was used during the Civil Rights Era at virtually every demonstration, mass meeting of activists, and march in the late 1950s and early 1960s. Singing songs helped give the activists strength and a sense of self. For more detailed information, you may explore the book, When the Spirit Says Sing!: The Role of Freedom Songs in the Civil Rights Movement, written by Kerran L. Sanger.

Now I’d like to explore the book, but on this snowy Tuesday I have no access to a library, nor do I have an extra $48 to plunk down for this book (current list price on Amazon – even for the Kindle version). So I decide to hunt for other online resources about the song…. and what I find is that there are a number of different songs that have the same sort of structure but with various lyrics and melodies, like this one from Hymnary, and this one by Sweet Honey in the Rock. They are variations, and to be sure, I’m fairly certain some of them were used in the civil rights movement and some of them come out of an older spiritual tradition. It makes sense.

But I’m struggling to find anything about the version – this wonderful, jazzed up version arranged by Mark Freundt, with that one tricky spot that’s only tricky until you learn it. Until I run across this version, by children’s music performer Raffi. It is the only one I found with our melody, although some of the lyrics are different. And when I look for more information about this version, I find this:


Have we got the wrong song in our hymnal? Did we mean to have one of the others but starting singing Raffi instead?  I don’t doubt that the hymnal commission did their due diligence, but was this not the song they thought they were getting?

Like I said, a strange rabbit hole.

I’m not sure what to make of this, gentle readers. I do like this song and when played well has a rousing, almost Pentecostal spirit to it (in fact, it’s a great song for Pentecost). It’s a wonderful send off for services with a strong call to action, too.

Anyway, here are the lyrics – another great example of a zipper song.

You got to do when the spirit says do!
You got to do when the spirit says do!
When the spirit says do, you got to do, oh Lord!
You got to do when the spirit says do!
Spirit says do (6x)

Other verses may include sing, dance, laugh, shout, etc.

I’m feeling a bit at sixes and sevens having gone through this… I almost wish I hadn’t looked for more information now. But I will say I like the cut of the Mad Hatter’s jib…

2 responses to “STJ#1024, When the Spirit Says Do”

  1. I, too, have always been confused by this one. I actually grew up with this song, or at least, a version of this song. Like the recordings you found online, the version I learned was in a major key, and the title was “You Gotta Sing when the Spirit Says Sing.” The closing line was “…and obey the spirit of the Lord.” I was raised in the Methodist church, and this was a very well-known song for informal gatherings. I’ve always been puzzled by the minor-key version in STJ. (Also, I really can’t stand the repeating “Spirit says do!” refrain at the end. It always seem so awkward when a congregation tries to sing it.)

  2. This melody and rhythm are what I grew up with, Baptist in WV, and long before Raffi. Love the minor key. I think this version was what was in Rise Up Singing. I really prefer the minor version, possibly because mountain music so often is minor or modal.

    Two versions

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