I REMEMBER THE FIRST TIME I heard—really heard—the refrain “Stand by me,” sung by a member of the choir at Saint Peter’s Baptist Church in the village of Allen in Clarke County, Alabama. The song had no ingrained meaning to me then. I recognized the hymn, but I did not know its power. I was fascinated, though, by the reaction when the congregants heard the opening notes of the prelude. They immediately came to life. At the first arpeggiated piano chord played by the worn hands of a farmer, some churchgoers stood, some moved their fingers as if to play imaginary instruments, some smiled so hard as to grimace.
“Stand by Me,” in all its grandeur, had a mysterious generational appeal. Grandparents gently swayed while mouthing the words with hints of tears either on the way or already gone. Parents sporadically clapped, not to the beat of the music, but to the pulse of the text, sometimes bursting out with an enthusiastic “Yes, Lord!” “Hallelujah!” or “Jesus!” But to us, the young people, it was old, stale, and irrelevant. Even so, we sensed an inherent reverence in the mystical rite of invoking God to “stand by me.”
As a child, I recognized the song. In my teen years, I could hear the words. As a young adult, I learned the text. Now, in my fourth decade, I know the hymn. I have walked the terrain of which it speaks. I have heard the moans, groans, cries, and hollers implied by its historical and theological narrative. I have experienced the joys and cares of mortality. I have tasted the bitter cocktail of fear, anger, and anxiety while thirsting for the balm that offers hope for tomorrow and heals yesterday’s wounds.
There is a grim beauty, a complex simplicity, and an accessible yet inconsumable truth in the urgent invocation in the five stanzas of Reverend Charles Albert Tindley’s opus. Whether sung as an upbeat congregational selection anchored with a subdivided quarter pace, or as a slow and drawn-out rubato solo filled with painful melismas and desperate cadences, there is an inherent power in experiencing it sung live. Still, I have never heard this hymn sung as powerfully or empoweringly as by the unnamed gospel singer at the rural church that watches over the remains of my maternal ancestors resting in the adjacent cemetery. For me, each stanza has become more and more painful to hear, yet easier to sing, as I have matured from adolescent to the parent of two young people who recognize the song and can hear the words, but do not yet know the text.
When the storms of life are raging, stand by me…
In 1905, Tindley, the son of a former slave and a free black woman, composed the hymn while in the midst of leading Bainbridge Street Methodist Episcopal Church into a new property in south Philadelphia. The self-educated pastor expressed his personal faith that God, if petitioned, would stand by him through the challenges of life and ministry. Tindley believed the storms of life were resolvable and reconcilable by calling forth the ruler of the wind and seas to stand by him.
There was something peculiarly powerful as the robed singer stood flat-footed, her back straight and head slightly tilted to the left—she sang and we felt it. Each syllable rang through the wooden church house as if her articulation controlled both the temperature and humidity of the space. We experienced the storms of her breath and a subtle dampness with the mention of the sea. I felt it, but until now, had no words to describe it.
When the world is tossing me
Like a ship upon the sea
Thou Who rulest wind and water,
Stand by me (stand by me)
In the midst of tribulation, stand by me…
Tindley married Daisy Henry during his time in Maryland, and by 1905 the couple had lost their thirteen-month-old daughter, Hester, to croup pneumonia. Tindley knew tribulation intimately, even as the congregation that he served continued to thrive and increase in size and stature day by day. His experience with the hellish politics of Philadelphia as well as failing health made the physical proximity of the divine, who never lost a battle, ever more important.
As the soloist sang the good news through the turbulent narrative, I noticed an intentional darkness in the timbre of her voice. Without bitterness, but with a residue of pain, she emoted each petition for God to stand by her. Over an extended crescendo, her increasingly urgent appeal convinced me that her life was on the line and her only hope was for God to stand by her. I really hoped that day that God would grant her request. I hoped God would grant mine, too.
When the hosts of hell assail,
And my strength begins to fail,
Thou Who never lost a battle,
Stand by me (stand by me).
In the midst of faults and failures, stand by me…
Tindley’s humble text offers his own faults and failures as an endearing acknowledgement that none of us is perfect. Through the challenges of leading a thriving congregation, representing people of color in Philadelphia politics, and becoming recognized as a rising “prince of preachers,” Tindley inevitably had to overcome his faults. He had many friends, but only the spirit who knew him before he was born could offer the presence he needed.
That singer in Clarke County took so many risks with her rendition of the sacred hymn. Yet even the notes she failed to hit had power. There seemed to be some special dispensation of grace on her voice. In that moment, as she sang, I felt a call to pray. I prayed for God’s forgiveness of my faults and failures while simultaneously seeking God’s hand to hold.
When I do the best I can,
And my friends misunderstand,
Thou Who knowest all about me,
Stand by me (stand by me).
In the midst of persecution, Stand by me…
Tindley composed this hymn during the Progressive era. Known for its prolific muckrakers, Jim and Jane Crow laws, and daunting Philadelphian political machine, this was no age for the weak at heart. The persecution Tindley encountered was not mere spiritual warfare, but the maiming of the body by systemic oppression in many forms. His summoning the God of Paul and Silas still rings forth a century later, as the hymn speaks poignantly to the concerns of the Black Lives Matter and Me Too movements.
That singer’s gut-wrenching growl and mid-voice squall made this hymn live. Experiencing it that way was a gift and a curse. Her song will never leave me, and yet I will never again experience its spontaneous liberating power. I have never been incarcerated, but if I were, I would sing just like she did, until the floors shook, doors opened, cuffs loosened, and God was standing by me.
When my foes in battle array
Undertake to stop my way,
Thou Who saved Paul and Silas,
Stand by me (stand by me).
When I’m growing old and feeble, Stand by me…
Tindley lived to eighty-two years of age. I wonder if the anxiety of his historic platform made every day one where he faced the possibility of death. He wrote this hymn during his fifth decade, having faced the changing nature of the human condition. In essence, he knew both the fear and the fate of growing old, and like all of us he had no desire to transition to the next journey alone.
Every time she tilted her head back to exhale the words “Stand by me,” I felt God’s presence in ways I could not understand until now. Her sweat-drenched, smooth caramel face shook as she puckered her rounded lips to add extra emphasis to “me.” Memories of her singing have revived, restored, and rejuvenated me many times over the past thirty years. I do not know her name and will never be able to thank her in this life, but I am certain that God is standing by her, either here or there, just as I know God is standing by me.
When my life becomes a burden,
And I’m nearing chilly Jordan,
O Thou “Lily of the Valley,”
Stand by me (stand by me).
Emmett G. Price III is dean of the chapel and professor of worship, church, and culture at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary. He is also founding pastor of Community of Love Christian Fellowship in the Allston neighborhood of Boston.
The Image archive is supported in part by an award from the National Endowment for the Arts.