How Can I Keep From Singing?
Artist & Tune
About the Song
This is a US 19th century gospel hymn. It seems that the tune commonly sung is by the well-known gospel compower Robert Lowry. It is much less clear, however, who wrote the lyrics.
The earliest publish version of the lyrics is in the New York Observer, a pro-slavery newspaper, in 1868. It was credited to Pauline T. and entitled "Always Rejoicing". Essentially the same lyrics were published the next year in a collection called Bright Jewels for the Sunday School, with Lowry credited as the compower, but no credit for the lyrics. This same version appeared in a number of 19th century collections of gospel hymns. The gospel hymn writer also published the same lyrics to a different musical setting of his own.
In the mid-20th century a woman in Connecticut named Doris Plenn learned the song from her grandmother who lived in Virginia. She wrote a new third verse about the struggle against injustice. She taught the song to her friend Pete Seeger. Plenn and/or Seeger also altered a number of the lyrics to eliminate Christian theology.
Pete Seeger, who founded Sing Out Magazine in 1950, included the song in the magazine in the late 1950s without copyright and suggesting that the song had Quaker origins. Many believed that the verse about going to prison for one's beliefs referred to the struggle to abolish slavery. However, Quakers did not engage in choral hymn singing in the time of slavery. Shakers did sing but this song is very different from Shaker songs both in musical structure and in language. It is unclear whether the idea that the song was Quaker originated from Seeger (who actually had a Quaker grandmother) or from Plenn or somewhere else.
The Irish singer Enya learned the song, probably from the singing of Pete Seeger. She recorded it and released it in 1991 both as a single and on her Shepherd Moons album. Her recording follows Seeger's lyrics including Plenn's new 3rd verse. Her recording charted in Ireland, the UK, Sweden & Australia and the album went multi-platinum.
Pete Seeger's manager, Harold Leventhal, challenged Enya's assertion that the song was in the public domain, hoping to obtain mechanical royalties for the Plenn family. The Leventhal ultimately lost in court in that Seeger had failed to copyright the song when it appeared in Sing Out Magazine and, in fact (mistakenly) suggested that the song was written in the early 19th century by Quakers in the notes accompanying the song in the magazine. Ironically, Fred Silber, the atttorney who defended against payment of royalties, was none other than the son of Irwin Silber who was a member of the Communist Party and was the cofounder (with Seeger) and long-time editor of Sing Out! Magazine.
You can find a listing of many covers of this song at Second Hand Songs: https://secondhandsongs.com/work/156113/all
Notable covers include:
- Pete Seeger, I Can See a New Day, 1964 (the first release of the song - a live concert album)
- John McCutcheon, How Can I Keep from Singing, 1975 (a cappella on McCutcheon's debut LP from June Appal Records)
- Enya, Shepherd Moons, 1991 (notable of lawsuit over royalties described above)
Pete The Seeger/Plenn version appears in at least three hymnals: #245 in Friends General Conderence's 1996 Worship in Song, #108 in Unitarian Universalist Association's 1993 Singing in the Living Tradition, and #476 in the United Church of Christ's 1995 The New Century Hymnal. (The Unitarians repeated the incorrect attribution to it being an "early Quaker song".) The older 19th century and more Christian lyrics appear in a number of other hymnals. (See article at hymnary.org.)