Saro Lynch-ThomasonSaro Lynch-Thomason. Photo by Studio 828 Photography.

CDSS Sings: “Supplication in a Nation’s Calamity”

A Shaker Song for a Nation in Turmoil

By Saro Lynch-Thomason

In February of 1862, a year into the Civil War, a 25-year-old Shaker woman named Sister Cecilia Devere lay asleep in her bed. The prosperous village of Mount Lebanon, NY, was far away from the carnage taking place further south, yet Sister Cecilia’s dreams were troubled. Suddenly she began to sing—a song no one had ever heard before. We now know the song as “Supplication in a Nation’s Calamity,” or “Prayer for the Captive.” Three years after Cecilia first sang “Supplication,” Shaker villages across the country would sing it to honor Lincoln after he was assassinated.

Dark is the cloud that rests over the nation
Wild is the war cry that pierces the air
God’s heavy judgements spread wide desolation
Strong hearts are bound in the depths of despair

The first verse reflects the unprecedented bloodshed that was taking place from Virginia to Oklahoma—death on a scale that overwhelmed the infrastructure of the North and South alike, and caused, in Cecilia’s words, even the strongest of hearts to be wracked with despair.

In the verses that follow, Cecilia calls for the emancipation of enslaved people, prays that all people might learn the importance of love and compassion, and asks God to bless and protect the Shakers in this time of terror. The song ends on a note of humility: “Down in the valley we find thy true power / Lord in thy mercy oh guard us still there.” In Shaker song traditions, to be in a valley is to be humble, and therefore closer to God.

“Supplication” offers a haunting depiction of a nation experiencing intense grief, an experience that in many ways mirrors our own today. The “wide desolation” and unfathomable death toll Cecilia sang about can be compared all too easily to the hundreds of thousands of Americans who have died of COVID-19. Now as then, even as we all experience these mass deaths, we have been driven apart politically, to the point where one half of the nation genuinely sees the other half as a threat to their life and liberty, and vice versa. This is where Cecilia’s call for humility finds stark relevance. How can we move past this shared calamity, and calamities to come, until we overcome our pride, recognize the humanity in people who live and believe differently, and learn to listen to one another?

“Supplication in a Nation’s Calamity” is the latest historic song I’ve featured in Songs that Speak, a monthly YouTube series that unpacks the history, folklore, and modern-day relevance of traditional songs, some well-known and some less known. The series explores questions like: What can a 1,000 year old song about a boar hunt teach us about our own ancient fears of being prey? How can old ballads about herbal remedies help us understand traditional folk magic? How does a 1930 cotton mill song enlighten us about the bravery of our grandmothers? (You can see the episode on “Supplication” on YouTube.) I also provide a companion video each month that teaches the song through sing-and-repeat instruction. Launched in December of 2020, this ongoing project is supported through Patreon, an online patronage platform that lets fans give monthly donations to support an artist’s work. You can learn more about mine on Patreon.

I was inspired to create the Songs that Speak series because, as a long-time song leader, I always found myself wanting to pack in as much history as possible whenever I taught workshops on traditional songs. One of the great gifts of singing old songs is the opportunity they provide to connect with the experiences of people we might otherwise never meet. Our interactions with these songs help to form a kind of invisible community, which allows dialogue and even companionship with singers and historic figures who existed hundreds or even thousands of years ago. For me, learning the history behind these songs has always deepened those connections, helping me to understand how my life is related to the lives of others, including those who have lived in very different cultures, times, and places. I hope that Songs that Speak can strengthen the kinship of singers past and present by offering a broader and deeper context for the songs that move us.

Cecilia’s “Supplication” would have been considered by the Shakers to be a “gift song,” a song brought about by heavenly inspiration. But songs need not be delivered from sacred sources to have revelatory power in our day-to-day lives. I invite you to use Songs that Speak as an opportunity to learn from, and even be soothed by, the lessons that songs such as “Supplication” have to teach us.

CDSS will be sponsoring future Songs that Speak episodes. Stay tuned to learn more.

Saro Lynch-Thomason is a ballad singer, song writer, folklorist, documentarian, and illustrator from Asheville, North Carolina. Her passion for traditional music, people’s struggles and Appalachian traditions calls her to perform, teach and produce media that tell the stories and songs of America’s social history. Saro holds an M.A. in Appalachian Studies and a Certificate in Documentary Studies.

Mount Lebanon Shaker community, circa 1880. Image courtesy of the New York Public Library.Mount Lebanon Shaker community, circa 1880. Image courtesy of the New York Public Library.

Supplication in a Nation's Calamity, or Prayer for the Captive

Words and Lyrics by Sister Cecilia Devere, February 1862

Dark is the cloud that rests over the nation
Wild is the war cry that pierces the air
God’s heavy judgements spread wide desolation
Strong hearts are bound in the depths of despair.

Lord, may the bands of the captive be broken
Oh may this struggle bring true liberty
Teach man that love is a heaven-born token
And that the truth can alone make us free.

Guide Zion’s children in this trying hour
Keep us dependent on thy love and care
Down in the valley we find thy true power
Lord in thy mercy oh guard us still there.

Watch Saro’s episode about the song online

     
Back to Top