PAM’S NOTES ON THE TEXT
Jeremiah, the weeping prophet, lonely and lamenting, relentlessly tried to warn people that their decadent society was doomed. Their world was about to come tumbling down because the privileged among them — greedy, selfish, frivolous, and power-hungry — had forgotten the poor, sick, and elderly. (He was talking about Judah @626 B.C.E.)
When the people didn’t listen, Jeremiah wailed a bewildering question: “Is there no balm in Gilead?” (Jeremiah 8:22)
In those days, spice caravans passed through Gilead, the mountainous region east of the Jordan River. There, traders sought a precious medicinal ointment made from the sap of a certain flowering shrub. In his anguish at what was about to happen, Jeremiah lamented that, even in Gilead, famous for its healing plant, there seemed to be no hope. It was a cry of despair.
Centuries later, enslaved African-Americans took Jeremiah’s question, turned it around, and boldly countered, “Yes! THERE IS A BALM IN GILEAD.” The true balm, they proclaimed, is the love of Jesus. With that statement of faith, they lifted the story out of the Old Testament, into the New.
“Hope, in the black spirituals, is not a denial of history… It is the belief that things can be radically otherwise than they are: that reality is not fixed but is moving in the direction of human liberation.”
This spiritual, found in many hymnals, is a favorite song of hope, comfort, and encouragement. “If you can’t pray like Peter, if you can’t preach like Paul …” Well, who can, really? “Sometimes I feel discouraged and think my work’s in vain.” Isn’t that the truth!
We are wounded and often discouraged, but if we look into our hearts, we’ll find that the balm of Jesus’ love is there to heal us, and the Holy Spirit will revive us. Believe it. Sing it.
DEANNA’S NOTES ON THE TUNE
BALM IN GILEAD (the tune) has an unknown history. In fact, as early as 1889, the Methodist hymnal printed a different tune with the traditional text.
The tune’s simplicity — both in its structure (refrain and verses) and its melody (consisting of just six different notes, most of them in the space of a fifth) — make the piece extremely singable and easy to remember. And because the piece is a ballad, it is perhaps one of the easiest spirituals for congregations to sing, as opposed to many gospel tunes that are meant to be swung with people clapping on 2 and 4.
In my arrangement — this one meant for instrumental trio, as opposed to congregational singing — I take a very slow tempo. This allows my bandmates and me to intensely listen to each other and to the sounds of our instruments and to actively rest in the healing balm of music.
TO GO DEEPER
“Black History Month: There Is a Balm in Gilead” by Dean McIntyre, UMC Discipleship Ministries blog
Book: The Spirituals and the Blues by James H. Cone, Goodreads
“God as a Gardener: Experiencing God through Plants” blog by Carolyn Roth
Sheet music of Deanna’s arrangement