A James Baldwin essay I read this morning began with quotations from two bits of poetry. Rudyard Kipling’s paean to colonialism, “The White Man’s Burden,” and a stanza from a gospel hymn called “Down at the Cross.” I’d never heard the hymn before, so I went looking for it. Following the disturbing casual racism of the Kipling poem (and Baldwin didn’t even quote the worst part of it!), I certainly wasn’t expecting such joyful, toe-tapping music.
It took a while to search out the right rendition. I found choirs full of white people bluegrassing it up all over YouTube. But I wanted to give you something closer to the hymn as Baldwin would have known it, and I think I did, in a lovely late-1940s recording of three black women singing close harmonies with a brisk, positively toe-tapping rhythm. They called themselves the Simmons-Aker trio: Dorothy Simmons, Hattie Hawkins, and Doris Akers at the piano. I wonder why Hattie Hawkins got left out of the billing?
Turns out Doris Akers not only played religious music, she also composed it. One song she wrote with gospel diva Mahalia Jackson sold more than a million records. Near the end of her life, in 1992, the Smithsonian Institution dubbed her “the foremost black gospel songwriter in the United States. The Gospel Music Hall of Fame inducted her posthumously, six years after her death.
And so today’s song is “Down at the Cross.” Toe-tapping gospel: I dare you to listen and keep still.