In our much-loved hymnal, Singing the Living Tradition, I couldn’t help but notice that the tune for #211, “We Are Climbing Jacob’s Ladder,” is the same for #212, “We Are Dancing Sarah’s Circle.” Mistake? Not at all. Here we have the concept of the masculine and feminine having equal representation. So, what are those differences?
The African American spiritual refers to the Jacob story in which Jacob, in a dream, sees himself ascending and descending a ladder to the heavens. In as much as any dream is mythological in nature, the slaves who sang it made a direct connection to their lives. The final verse reads: “Though the road is steep and rugged, we are climbing on.” In other words, they knew that the Jacob figure had a long and difficult struggle just as they did, and they could identify with the end result of the story: Jacob did have a favorable reunion with his brother. The images have to do with climbing, hope and struggle. Of course, in more recent times this song was adopted by everyone because everyone struggles with their issues which are beyond the racial one. (And I am not minimizing the racial issue.)
In 1975, Carole Etzler wrote the lyrics for “We Are Dancing Sarah’s Circle.” In her version, the images are different. We are “dancing’” and not “climbing;” we are dancing in a circle and not a straight line; the circle is moving on and on and not standing still. We are doing our own naming; i.e., we have a different way of looking at or “framing” the world.
Which is right? Both. Why? They both contain truth about our human condition. We each have our issues and are each a part of a generation which circles in and out of existence. “We will do our own naming;” i.e., we will assign values to our experiences according to our evolving understanding. We still struggle with our issues because we are climbing the rungs of understanding as we reach for the fulfillment of our potential. We live in an age where our scientists are helping us to better understand our world, both interior and exterior.
“If I stumble, will you help me?” is the key phrase of both versions. I hope so and may it be so! Of course, no matter where one is on the “ladder,” it is music that can aid us in the way in which we integrate all of our experiences. Whether you sing in a choir, play an instrument, hum along, sing in the shower, or just actively listen, let music accompany you on the journey.
Here’s to climbing and dancing and singing!!