Saturday, May 1, 2010

"How Can I Keep From Singing" by Robert Lowry

I first heard this song on the 1991 album Shepherd Moons by Irish "new age" artist Enya (Eithne Ní Bhraonáin). It immediately became one of my favorite songs, and I thought it sounded very hymn-like in spite of it being very secular in its lyrics. The third stanza always reminded me of the apostle Paul singing in prison.

Several weeks ago, while looking for something else entirely, I happened across a website (which I forgot to bookmark and now can't track down) that had a poem that was obviously the original version of these lyrics attributed to Robert Lowry from 1865. Knowing that Robert Lowry had been a prolific 19th-century hymnist, I assumed that he had also written music for it. At that moment I forgot whatever it was I had been looking for and immediately set out to try and find a copy of the sheet music for it. I was unable to find any kind of SATB version of the sort that would have been printed in a hymnal, but I was able to find a simple piano score accompaniment for it, which was enough for me. It was only a matter of time for me to arrange an a capella SATB* version from the piano score.

Below is a graphic to illustrate the differences between the two versions. Click to enlarge.

According to the Wikipedia entry for this song (which I have no reason to doubt), there is some argument as to the origination of the lyrics. Some attribute it to Lowry, but it seems more likely that someone else wrote the words and Lowry was the first to put them to music. Our best guess now, 150 years later, is that the true identity of the author has been lost.

As you can see from this graphic, the first stanza is identical in both versions except for some of the punctuation. The second stanza begins to diverge, with some similarities but with all the Christian references removed for the folk song version (attributed to folk musician Pete Seeger). The third stanza is entirely different, with the folk song version turning the song into more of a "political persecution" song rather than a Christian hymn.

Again according to Wikipedia, this song was not included in many hymnals until after Enya's 1991 version gave it a resurgence in popularity; after that it appeared in several hymnals in the very late 20th century.

I see no reason why the original lyrics could not be sung in a Christian worship service today. The song could easily serve as a song of both edification and praise. The links below lead to files that anyone is free to use as they see fit to learn and sing this song. I hope they will be of use to someone.

How Can I Keep From Singing - sheet music: A pdf file of the sheet music written in a simple SATB version with shape notes.

How Can I Keep From Singing - soprano emphasized
How Can I Keep From Singing - alto emphasized
How Can I Keep From Singing - tenor emphasized
How Can I Keep From Singing - bass emphasized

The previous four files are simple mp3 files with the various parts emphasized so that anyone can listen and learn their part by ear. The "emphasized" part uses a midi organ sound and is boosted at a higher volume than the accompanying parts. The non-emphasized parts use the midi "choir oohs" sound at a lower volume level.

And finally, to hear the song with all parts set to piano at the same volume level, click on How Can I Keep From Singing - all parts.

NOTE: This is the first of what I hope to be many songs that I have categorized as "not in the book." By this I mean, not in the book that my home congregation currently uses, that is, Songs of Faith and Praise from 1994 edited by Alton Howard, et. al. Any song so categorized only means it is not in this particular book. It does not mean that it is not in any book. I would very much like to see any SATB version written by Lowry himself. If you know of such a version, please leave a comment.

*"A capella" and "SATB" are terms that I will likely use often on this blog. "A capella" in its modern meaning simply means any song that is written for voices only. "SATB" means "Soprano Alto Tenor Bass," and refers to songs written in the style commonly used in a capella hymnals.


  1. Hm. I remember singing that song in church (Catholic), but I had no idea Enya had done a version. And I don't know if I first heard it before or after 1991, so I don't know if her recording played a role in its use. But, nevertheless, I have heard that song in church before.

  2. Yeah, according to that Wikipedia article, it was more popular among Catholics than Protestants. Which is kind of funny since Lowry was a Baptist.

  3. You'll find this in many Catholic hymnals. I fell in love with this one when I first heard Jean Redpath do it a cappella on A Prairie Home Companion in it's first iteration years ago. The beauty was, she did it in 3 instead of the written 4. This hymn is to be done at my funeral, whenever that will be.

    You have inspired me to put an index of my own hymnal collection up for comment on my blog. Now we'll see if I actually do it.

    Will send you a link when it is done.

  4. I sang a specific version of this song in choir but I can't remember who wrote the arrangement anymore and I can't find it again it makes me sad.

    My life flows on in endless song,
    above earth's lamentation.
    I hear the clear, though far off hymn
    that hails a new creation.
    No storm can shake my inmost calm
    while to that Rock I'm clinging.
    Since love is Lord of heaven and earth,
    how can I keep from singing?

    Through all the tumult and the strife,
    I hear that music ringing.
    It finds an echo in my soul.
    How can I keep from singing?
    What though the tempest loudly roars,
    I hear the truth, it liveth.
    What through the darkness round me close,
    Songs in the night it giveth.

    No storm can shake my inmost calm
    While to that rock I'm clinging.
    Since love is lord of Heaven and earth
    How can I keep from singing?

    When tyrants tremble, sick with fear,
    And hear their death-knell ringing,
    When friends rejoice both far and near,
    How can I keep from singing?
    In prison cell and dungeon vile
    Our thoughts to them are winging.
    When friends by shame are undefiled,
    How can I keep from singing?