‘When one is a child, when one is young, when one has not yet reached the age of recognition, one thinks the world is strong, that the strength of God is endless and unchanging.
But after the thing has happened – whatever that thing might be – that brings recognition, that one knows irrevocably how very fragile is the world, how very, very fragile …’ (Russell Hoban from the Novel, ‘Pilgermann’)
‘Pilgrims are persons in motion … Seeking something we might call contemplation, or perhaps the word clarity will do as well, a goal to which only the spirit’s compass points the way’ (Richard Neibuhr)
‘Give me my scallop shell of quiet,
My staff of joy to walk upon,
My scrip of joy, immortal diet,
My bottle of salvation,
My gown of glory, hope’s true gage,
And thus I’ll take my pilgrimage.’
(Sir Walter Raleigh)
Solvitor Ambulando! (It is solved by walking!)
We are all pilgrims. Between the moments of first drawing breath and breathing out for the last time last we all conduct our own pilgrimages.
For some of us this will involve solitary, epic journeys, for others the daily accumulation of quiet thoughts and unnoticed actions among friends and family close to home.
We all find, one way or another, our own road to walk the way.
The song featured on The Immortal Jukebox today, ‘Just a Closer Walk with Thee’ is a traditional gospel song that has lifted, comforted, and accompanied many a pilgrim on their walk through life as well as galvanising many fine musicians in many genres to produce inspirational performances.
Of course, the song has often (especially in New Orleans) been played as a cortege song as many a coffined pilgrim makes their final earthy journey : and who is to say it does not comfort them at that moment every bit as much as the weeping mourners?
With no further ado I’ll kick things off with a barn-burning performance from a band, North Carolina’s The Avett Brothers, who have regularly commanded audiences to their feet with their fervent encore performance of, ‘Just a Closer Walk’ (Warning: once heard this version will echo in your mind for months to come!)
Wow! Brothers Seth and Scott Avett know only one way to play – with lung busting, nerve shredding, whole hearted, heart bursting, total fraternal commitment: so that you are breathlessly swept away by the tidal wave irresistibility of their performance.
I’m convinced that if, at the end here, they had kept on playing and said,’Come On! Let’s walk together to the end of the earth (wherever that might be) the whole audience would have joined them!
So where did this great song come from?
As so often we have to rely on conjecture and guesswork as much as documentary evidence. It is surely true that the song emerged out of the African-American encounter with slavery and the soothing sonorous cadences of the Bible.
The idea of the suffering pilgrim being accompanied on their daily travels and eventual journey across the Jordan by a compassionate saviour runs very deep.
Late in the 1800s Martha Lankton and William Kirkpatrick published, ‘Closer Walk with Thee’. Sometime in the early 20th century the Reverend Elijah Cluke from Atchinson, Kansas seems to have come up with something very close to the song we have today though gospel publishing luminary Kenneth Morris had a hand in the process too.
Gospel choirs, quartets and soloists recognised the strength of the song and it became in the 1930s a staple of the sacred repertoire. Still, it was just two months before Pearl Harbor when it was first recorded by the Selah Jubilee Singers.
Since then there is no counting the number of versions that have been recorded (I’ll point to some superior versions in my Notes).
When Van Morrison, in his endlessly absorbing song of pilgrimage and contemplation, ‘Common One’ was looking back at the voices that had stirred his soul, calling forth his own voice and setting him off on his continuing journey towards Avalon he reached down deep to exclaim, ‘The voice of Mahalia Jackson came through the ether’ to acknowledge the spiritual power and inspiration that the, ‘Queen of Gospel’ has exercised on generations of her fellow citizens in the United States and on singers and musicians all over the world.
When you listen to the awesome, regal power of her performance of, ‘Just a Closer Walk’ (a song she sang for her whole life) you will surely agree with Martin Luther King that such a blessed voice comes along not once in a century but rather once in a millennium.
Mahalia, when she sang, was clearly filed to the brim with the Spirit and her gift was to honour and glorify that Spirit through the stately magnificence of her performances.
There is an unquestionable healing power in her singing which seems to accept and contain, unafraid, the inevitable pain of life even while her voice is uplifted by a faith which insists that no journey of pain has to be walked alone.
The penultimate version featured is by Randy Travis perhaps the greatest singer country music has produced in the last 40 years or so.
Randy’s voice has a manly, burnished elegance such that when he has a song worthy of his talent he can touch your heart and soul as few singers have ever done.
As a man he remains a pilgrim whose life has provided him with glittering triumphs along with devastating bouts of addiction and illness.
I am pleased to read only today that he is continuing to recover from a debilitating stroke and that he has just got married.
The restrained, strangely moving, inner-lit, fervour of his performance of, ‘Just a Closer Walk’ must owe something to his hard won understanding that those to whom great gifts are given are not exempt from experiencing how fragile, how very, very fragile life can be.
I wish him well in the miles he has yet to walk.
To conclude today I turn to the magnificently named New Orleans native, Trumpeter/vocalist Kermit Ruffin, accompanied by the Rebirth Band who returns, ‘Just a Closer Walk’ to its incarnation as a song to steady the heart and lift the spirit as another brother or sister is carried away on the day of their burial.
Kermit has indeed played this song hundreds of times at New Orleans funerals and this shows in the relaxed authority he brings to it below.
I hear this version as an affecting, consolatory amalgam, of defiant vitality, unashamed sorrow, purposeful dignity and heart-shadowing grief.
‘Just a Closer Walk’ is a song which will always live because it speaks to our bone deep understanding that nothing in this world is permanent and that each step we take is a further step on our path to a destination far beyond the grasp of our limited human senses.
Yet each of us may feel our burdens eased when shared and our load made lighter by melody and song guiding us gently to some farther shore.
The Avett Brothers – I was tremendously cheered when I first discovered them because they gave me, once again, that sense that I had found, ‘My band’ – one I could commit to without snarky reservation.
I was bowled over by their sheer joy in making music and their seeming indifference to the dictates of what they should do according to the music business moguls and analysts.
I don’t think you can go wrong with any of their records but I particularly recommend:
‘Mignonette’ (2004), ‘The Gleam’ (2006), ‘I and Love and You’ (2009) and ‘Live Vol 3’ (2010).
Recommended versions of, ‘Just a Closer Walk’:
Sister Rosetta Tharpe
Bob Dylan with Johnny Cash
Harry Dean Stanton (a cameo performance in the Paul Newman film, ‘Cool Hand Luke’)