For the first Requiem and Remembrance Day National Sing-In Against Gun Violence, we’ve chosen “We Are Climbing Jacob’s Ladder” as our anthem.
Created by slaves as call-response song, We Are Climbing Jacob’s Ladder, is believed to have originated sometime between 1750 and 1825. The song refers to a dream that Jacob, the biblical Patriarch Jacob, had of a ladder that leads to heaven.
While several interpretations of the meaning of the dream and its song exist, it is generally agreed that the original song meaning referred to slaves finding freedom, either in death as they ascend to heaven, or may reflect the hope for freedom from bondage.
We Are Climbing Jacob’s Ladder is believed to be the first spiritual to be widely sung by white American Christians and can be found in many Christian hymnals to this day.
Many different artists in different styles have recorded the song over the years to promote social justice causes.
Paul Robeson recorded an a capella version in 1920, but changed the refrain from “Soldiers of the cross” to “We’re soldiers in this fight.”
In the 1930’s the song was adapted and recorded by Pete Seeger in support of the labor union movement using the refrain “Brothers, sisters, all.” Seeger went on to sing his version throughout his career.
In 1975 by Carole Etzler, completely revised the lyrics to offer a more inclusive, feminist perspective called Sarah’s Circle, which includes choruses of “Here we see and find our story,” and “We will all do our own naming,” with the refrain “Sisters, Brothers, all.”
Other notable recordings include Arlo Guthrie’s 2001 album “Harp: A Time to Sing” with Pete Seeger, Holly Near, Ronnie Gilbert and Jeff Langley.
Bruce Springsteen included a high-energy version on the song on his Grammy award winning album “We Shall Overcome: the Pete Seeger Sessions” in 2006.
In 2012, singer Anne Murray included the song in her album “What a Wonderful World: 26 Inspirational Classics.”
Perhaps the best known version is by Dr. Bernice Johnson Reagon, who recorded an a cappella version for her album River of Life: Harmony One, which was later included on the soundtrack of Ken Burn’s documentary “The Civil War.” This version includes the choruses “Do You Think I Make a Soldier” and “Rise, Shine, Give God Your Glory,” and “Keep on Climbing, We Will Make It.”
The longevity and popularity of the song attests to its power to speak to all kinds of social justices issues.
You Tube Links:
Sheet Music, for solo voice: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=40U0URLnXIQ
Sheet Music, 4 voice parts: https://www.scoreexchange.com/scores/75547.html
Choral Version: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yXYVHXHcFts
Paul Robeson: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-Z__pINDXaw
Pete Seeger: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YmxkSq0cc9k
Bruce Springsteen: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_CqAOLAPLsU
Bernice Johnson: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7-qQsW6pdVM