Something to listen to while you read. Solo piano sheet music available at Sheet Music Plus.
Tune Name: How Can I Keep From Singing
Alternate Texts: We Cannot Own the Sunlit Sky, A Prophet-Woman Broke a Jar
Fun Fact: Although pastor Robert Lowry, who composed the tune How Can I Keep From Singing, said “I would rather preach a gospel sermon to an appreciative, receptive congregation than write a hymn,” he is best remembered for his hymn writing including Shall We Gather at the River.
Most hymnals (including two of my favorites for source material) credit Robert Lowry with writing both the text and tune of My Life Flows on in Endless Song.
It seems most hymnals have it wrong.
There is little doubt that Robert Lowry composed the tune to this hymn, first published in the 1869 songbook Bright Jewels for the Sunday School. (What a fun name!) However, at least three theories exist on the origin of the text:
- The text was from an early Quaker or Shaker Hymn. This commonly held belief was perpetuated by Pete Seeger who recorded a version of this hymn in the 1960’s. However it may be questionable since early Quakers did not permit congregational singing during worship.
- The text was written by Anna Bartlett Warner. No author was cited for the hymn when it appeared in its first publication. Since Anna penned the text to another hymn, One More Day’s Work for Jesus, which appeared unattributed in the same publication, she may also have written My Life Flows on in Endless Song.
- The text was written by “Pauline T.” On August 27, 1868, The New York Observer published a poem, Always Rejoicing, attributing it to “Pauline T.” Since the words to Always Rejoicing were the same as My Life Flows on in Endless Song, Robert Lowry may have seen the poem and set it to music. (If this is true, then I have to wonder if “Pauline T.” was a member of the Quaker or Shaker faith tradition which means the first theory in this list could be correct as well.)
As with most hymns whose roots are in folk music, we may never positively know its true origin. But we can trace the origin of two new texts for this tune that have appeared in recent years.
We Cannot Own the Sunlit Sky by Ruth Duck features a beautiful text about caring for God’s creation and for each other “that all may have abundant life.” Brian Wren‘s text A Prophet-Woman Broke a Jar acknowledges the unsung contributions of women of faith and calls all – women, men and children – to “serve and lead.”
Interestingly, all three texts share the same sentiment: a change of perspective. Seeking joy in the trials of life (How Can I Keep from Singing), re-evaluating how we care for and share the precious resources of our planet (We Cannot Own the Sunlit Sky), or shifting our views to celebrate and encourage the contributions of all people (A Prophet-Woman Broke a Jar), these three hymn texts, old and new, challenge us to examine our attitudes and make the changes needed to achieve harmony for all.