A Song Through the Darkness: Let the Lower Lights Be Burning
By Nicole Singer
Y’know those moments when a song gets stuck in your head unexpectedly, and the lyrics are perfectly fitting for the moment you’re in? I had one of those a few months ago.
The song that visited me was “Brightly Beams Our Father’s Mercy,” a hymn likening God’s mercy to the light from a lighthouse in a storm. The song calls for listeners to help bring another safely home, literally and spiritually, by keeping the shore well-lit with the lower lights—those smaller than the lighthouse, but visible from sea—to guide homeward-bound sailors into the harbor. The song was first published in 1871, written by the composer and music teacher Philip Paul Bliss (1838-1876). It can be found under the titles “Brightly Beams Our Father’s Mercy” and “Let the Lower Lights Be Burning,” and sometimes simply “Lower Lights.”
I first heard it on a recording by Forebitter, a band of four of Mystic Seaport Museum’s sea music staff: Craig Edwards, Geoff Kaufman, David Littlefield, and Rick Spencer. While Forebitter disbanded some years ago, their recordings and research were influential in my early explorations into sea music. Their version is from a hymnal at Littlefield’s place of worship in Old Lyme, CT.
I am culturally Jewish, and while I don’t have much of a spiritual practice of my own, I often find meaning in faith- based songs. This song’s messages about spreading hope, helping others, yearning for relief, and the will to survive struck me more powerfully than any other song I’d heard or sung throughout this pandemic. It reminded me of the importance of reaching out and of being reached-out-to, even (and perhaps especially) in difficult times. When the world shut down and my connections with other people became few and far between, the social stakes became higher: in every precious interaction, I wanted to say the right thing, in the right way, at the right moment, and I feared that if I didn’t, I would be in some way abandoned just when I wanted and needed connection the most. Fearing the repercussions, I would often continue on in loneliness without reaching out. While there are many of us who thrive when alone—and it’s important to recognize one another’s needs for solo space—this song’s message was just what I needed to hear during this year of isolation. Plus, it’s got a very singable chorus!
In a bout of emotion-fueled creativity, I began adapting the lyrics, changing a word here and there and adding a verse. I debuted an early draft at the monthly “Secular Songs & ‘Hymns’” session, hosted by Cate Clifford and Lynz Morahn. They started this session at Youth Traditional Song Weekend in 2017 and have continued to host it virtually throughout the pandemic. It is a welcoming and connective place “to share songs of hope, community, peace, perseverance, love, celebration, grief, etc. that don’t involve god(s) or religion,” as the event description reads. The session has become an important emotional as well as musical meeting place for many singers, including myself.
Plenty of singers feel conflicted about singing religious songs because the lyrics feel dissonant with their more secular worldviews. In adapting the lyrics of this song, I was beginning to find a way to expand the song’s appeal and message, allowing it to continue to have a strong (and, I hoped, positive) impact, including for those who are not religious themselves. Later, my friend and singing partner Becky Wright, a brilliant arranger and wordsmith, greatly improved what I’d started. The result of our work is the set of lyrics printed here.
In Frederick Pease Harlow’s “The Making of a Sailor,” an account of Harlow’s voyage aboard the Akbar of Boston, Harlow and a shipmate hear this song coming from inside the Seamen’s Bethel while on shore leave. The shipmate, Joe, hesitates to enter:
“Hold on, Fred! This is a Protestant institution and I am a Catholic.”
Then the chorus broke out afresh: “Let the lower lights be burning. Send a gleam across the wave.”
“Those are sailor words,” said he. “Oh, all right! The priest won’t know it; take the lead and I’ll follow.”
Inside, they experience a powerful song-filled service and start singing along with a little help from a Miss Hopkins:
“A swell-looking girl, with a good, strong voice, sitting next to Joe, shared her songbook with him, quickly finding the different hymns and taking particular pains to point out to him the page and the line being sung...and Joe finally found his voice and followed her with a fine tenor. No one could help singing under such conditions and the evening passed altogether too quickly.”
Songs like these carry themes that can buoy all of us, no matter our relationship to spirituality, with the kind of strength that the original hymns were meant to have within a specific faith context. Like the lights along the shore, we can shine out and steadily guide one another through this storm. And like Miss Hopkins, we will help one another find our voices when we sing together again.
Nicole Singer is a musician, dancer, teacher, and artist living in Easthampton, Massachusetts. She is an organizer and co-founder of Youth Traditional Song Weekend, the chair of folk music and song programming for NEFFA, and co-author (with Julia Friend) of CDSS’s Folk Sing Starter Kit. When she’s not singing or organizing, Nicole is an elementary school art teacher. Her solo album, Long Hot Summer Days, is available on Bandcamp. Her next project, a duo record with Becky Wright, is expected to be released this summer.
Reference/for further reading:
Harlow, F. P. (1928). The Making of a Sailor, or, Sea Life Aboard a Yankee Square-Rigger. Marine Research Society.
Let the Lower Lights Be Burning
Originally written by Philip Paul Bliss, 1871 (public domain)
Adapted lyrics and additional fourth verse by Nicole Singer and Becky Wright, 2021
Transcription by Kristen Planeaux
Brightly shines the hope of harbors
Where our journeys shall be o'er
But, for now, we have the keeping
Of the lights along the shore
Let the lower lights be burning
Send a gleam across the wave
There’s a lonesome, struggling sailor
You may rescue, you may save
Dark the night has come and settled
Loud the angry billows roar
Eager eyes are watching, longing
For the lights along the shore
Trim your glowing lamps, my dear ones
Some sweet sailor, tempest-tossed
Trying now to reach the harbor
In the darkness may be lost
Stand your watches now, my shipmates
Rise and turn the glass once more
Soon will come the day whose dawning
Greets the lights upon the shore