WHAT AN amazing and unexpected history This Little Light of Mine turns out to have.
I went on a hunt for some scratchy old field recordings, assuming it was an old southern gospel song. And it was, sort of. For while there is a modern gospel version of This Little Light, the song has had several incarnations. But the one thing it has never been is a Negro spiritual. It isn’t even from the south.
This Little Light of Mine was written in the 1920s as a song for children by a white northern pastor/music teacher, Harry Dixon Loes. Inspired by one or more of several Gospels which reference the Lord’s shining light, it became a staple of Sunday School teaching across the U.S.
It was in 1952 when The Ward Singers, legendary pioneers of the modern gospel sound, turned it into a ‘gospel’ song for adults. Soon after, Zilphia Horton adapted it further still and taught it to Pete Seeger (as she did with We Shall Overcome) and other folk singers of the 1950s. It became a Civil Rights anthem, generally assumed to be a symbolic old slave song from the south.
Not surprisingly, This Little Light of Mine can be performed in pretty much any manner you please. I’ve found over 30 distinct versions.
Some of the names will be familiar (Brenda Lee, Etta James, Neko Case, Odetta, Roger McGuinn, The Seekers, Sam Cooke, Son House). Other versions, some of them even better, won’t. Professor Eddie Lusk? Trombone Shorty? Doc Fozz? Are those cocktails or singers?
You can hear it by jug bands, singer-songwriters, piano players, gospel ‘torch’ singers. There’s a capella, handclaps, finger snapping….solos, duets, 4-part harmony, large-scale choirs….
It’s played on piano, fiddle, guitar, upright bass, organ, cello (the Yo-Yo Ma is delicious), with horns….
You can hear it in doo wop, country, dreamy prog folk, bluegrass, blues, gospel…. Ry Cooder even wrote a rock version for Mavis Staples
No matter who is singing, This Little Light of Mine remains a most powerful song of personal freedom, and no matter the style, some of the child-like jubilation and wonder found in that original children’s hymn still shines through every time.