Ride On, King Jesus

Ride On, King Jesus. African American spiritual*.

Jesus was the Savior and a friend, human-and-yet-divine and yet the Son of God.  Because of their often brutal treatment, the slaves easily identified with his suffering in a very personal way. ‘Were you there when they crucified MY Lord?’ they sang. As Howard Thurman (1899-1981) said, ‘He suffered, He died, but not alone—they were there with Him. They knew what He suffered; it was a cry of the heart that found a response and an echo in their own woes’ (Thurman, 1975, p. 22).  

The slaves’ imagination was powerfully captivated by the notion of having a king who was powerful enough that absolutely no one could ‘hinder’ him. If Jesus could not be hindered, then they had agency in terms of their own lives as well. Some versions of this life-affirming song add ‘He is the King of Kings, He is the Lord of Lords, Jesus Christ, the First and Last, no man hinders me’! This song captures the aspiration of the hearts of enslaved peoples.  Jesus was born a baby, yes, but He was also a king, recalling his triumphal, un-hindered entry into Jerusalem.

Theological foundation

William B. McLain (1928 –  ) notes roots for this text in both the ‘highway’ imagery of the Old Testament (Isaiah 35:8; 40:3) and the Triumphal Entry into Jerusalem in the New Testament (Matthew 21: 1-11; Mark 11: 1-11; Luke 19: 28-44; John 12: 12-19) (McClain, 1990, p. 90). African American theologian James H. Cone (1936-2018) uses this spiritual to emphasize a specific theological perspective: 

It is significant that theology proper blends imperceptibly into Christology in the spirituals. That is, statements about God are not theologically distinct from statements about Jesus Christ. Jesus is understood as the King, the deliverer of humanity from unjust suffering (Cone, 1972, p. 47). 

Howard Thurman, another major African American theologian, educator and civil rights leader of the last century, makes a similar observation citing an evidently later version that stresses the majesty of Jesus in which ‘Jesus and God are apparently synonymous’ (Thurman, p. 24). His text is as follows (p. 25). 

He’s King of kings, and Lord of lords,
Jesus Christ, the first and last,
  No man works like him.
He built a platform in the air,
  No man works like him.
He meets the saints from everywhere,
  No man works like him.
He pitched a tent on Canaan’s ground,
  No man works like him.
And broke the Roman Kingdom down,
  No man works like him. 

 Variations and publications of the spiritual 

While this spiritual has limited use in hymnals in comparison to others in the evolving canon of African American Spirituals, it has become well known through concertized arrangements, both for solo voice and for choir. An early version is found in Slave Songs of the United States* (New York: 1867), usually considered the first anthology of spirituals published. It appears under the title ‘No Man Can Hinder Me’ (No. 14, pp. 10-11) and does not include the now-familiar refrain, ‘Ride On, King Jesus’. Rather than an oblique allusion to the Triumphal Entry, this version focuses on the miracles of Jesus and incorporates slave dialect: 

See what wonder Jesus done . . . .
Jesus make the dumb to speak . . . .
Jesus make de cripple walk . . . .
Jesus give de blind his sight . . . .
Jesus do most anyting [anything] . . . .
Rise, poor Lajarush [Lazarus] from the tomb . . . .
Satan ride an iron-gray horse . . . .
King Jesus ride a milk-white horse . . . .

Listed as a variation is 

            You better pray, de world da gwine [world where you are going],
            No man can hinder me!
            De Lord have mercy on my soul,
            No man can hinder me!
 

While this spiritual is not included in Folk Songs of the American Negro (Nashville: 1915) by Frederick Jerome Work* (1878?-1942) with an Introduction by John Wesley Work (II)* (1872?-1925), it was becoming well known through choral and solo arrangements. During the last quarter of the 19th century, the spiritual became a favorite of the Fisk Jubilee Singers* on their tours to raise funds for Fisk University. Harry T. Burleigh* (1866-1949) collected many of their songs and arranged them in his Jubilee Songs of the United States of America (1916). His solo arrangements of spirituals, including ‘Ride On, King Jesus’ were staples of the concert repertoire throughout the 20th century. Later anthologies included it with the refrain: The Book of American Negro Spirituals, 2 vols. (New York: 1925/1926), by James Weldon Johnson* (1871-1938) and John Rosamond Johnson* (1873-1954); and American Negro Songs and Spirituals: a comprehensive collection of 230 folk songs, religious and secular (New York, 1940, No. 49), edited by John Wesley Work (III)* (1901-1967). 

Though the spiritual appears in several African American hymnals in the United States, there is no standard version. Songs of Zion (Nashville: 1981/1982, No. 77) edited by Judge Jefferson Cleveland* (1937-1986) and Verolga Nix (1933-2014) provides a simple melody-only version with the following text: 

Ride on, King Jesus!
No man can a-hinder me.
 I was young when I begun,
No man can a-hinder me.
But now my race is almost run,
No man can a-hinder me.
King Jesus rides a milk white horse,
No man can a-hinder me.
The river of Jordan he did cross,
No man can a-hinder me. 
If you want to find your way to God,
No man can a-hinder me.
The gospel highway must be trod,
No man can a-hinder me. 

The African Heritage American Hymnal (Chicago: 2001, No. 225) edited by Delores Carpenter (1944 –  ) includes a more recent gospel arrangement by Stephen Key that focuses primarily on the refrain paired with another spiritual ‘In that great gettin’ up morning, fare ye well’. Lift Every Voice and Sing II (New York: 1993) edited by Horace Clarence Boyer* (1935-2009) contains two versions. ‘He is King of kings’ (96), arranged by Boyer, draws somewhat on the early work Slave Songs in the United States (1867). ‘Ride on, King Jesus’ (97) uses the standard refrain with two stanzas:

 

King Jesus rides a milk-white horse,
No man works like Him.
De river Jord’n He did cross,
No man works like Him. 
I know that my redeemer lives,
No man works like Him.
And of his blessing freely gives,
No man works like Him.

 Testimony

The following narrative offers a witness to the singing of this spiritual by enslaved Africans in the presence of white slave owners: 

When I was a little boy they would kill us if they caught us in a Sunday School . . . . [W]hen they did let us go to church sometimes, they would give you a seat way back here, with the white folks in front. Then sometimes they would let you come in the evenings to church and then you would take the front seats, with the padderollers [slave patrollers] behind, so that if the preacher said something he shouldn’t say, they would stop him. One time when they were singing, ‘Ride on King Jesus, No man can hinder Thee,’ the padderollers told them to stop or they would show him whether they could be hindered or not (James Farley in Fisk University SSI [see below], p. 125). 

Eileen Guenther/CMH

 

Further Reading

  1. William Francis Allen,Charles Pickard Ware, Lucy McKim Garrison, Slave Songs of the United States (New York: A. Simpson & Co., 1867).
  2. James H. Cone, The Spirituals and the Blues (New York: The Seabury Press, 1972).
  3. Fisk University Social Science Institute. Unwritten History of Slavery: Autobiographical Account of Negro Ex-Slaves, Ophelia Settles Egypt, interviewer, Social Science Source Document No. 1 (Nashville: Social Science Institute, Fisk University, 1945).
  4. Eileen Guenther, In Their Own Words: Slave Life and the Power of Spirituals (St Louis: MorningStar Music Publishers, 2016).
  5. William B. McClain, Come Sunday: The Liturgy of Zion (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1990).
  6. Howard Thurman, Deep River and the Negro Spiritual Speaks of Life and Death (Richmond, Ind.: Friends United Press, 1975).

 

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