Author: Just a Little Talk with Jesus
The negro spiritual was a musical art form created by the African slaves of yesteryear to give voice to their misery and to communicate with one another.
“The term ‘American Negro Spirituals’ speaks to the history, the suffering, the hope and the resolve of a people who were able to sing through their suffering and tell and re-tell their heroic stories of triumph and survival through these songs … while the songs were born out of this very dark period in our American History, these songs are now sung, celebrated, and revered all around the world … the ultimate goal is for these melodies to be celebrated and sung by all.” (Dr. Everett McCorvey [Founder and Director American Spiritual Ensemble, Professor of Voice and Endowed Chair in Opera Studies, University of Kentucky])
One of the “slave songs” that has found its way into countless hymnals across denominational lines is “Just a Little Talk with Jesus.” Although the original author will forever remain a mystery, the creative work of Cleavant Derricks brought this popular refrain to the scores of believers who identified with the power of prayer.
Derricks was born on May 13, 1910, in Chattanooga, Tennessee, to John and Ora Mae Kinamore Derricks. His father was a molder for a stove foundry, and his mother worked as a servant for a family in Chattanooga. When Cleavant was 21, he was helping his mother sweep out a theater and he found a $5 bill. The discovery was all the inspiration he needed to compose one of his most well-known songs.
I once was lost in sin but Jesus took me in
And then a little light from heaven filled my soul
He bathed my heart in love and He wrote my name above
And just a little talk with Jesus makes me whole
Now let us have a little talk with Jesus
Let us tell Him all about our troubles
He will hear our faintest cry
And He will answer by and by
And when you feel a little prayer wheel turnin’
And you will know a little fire is burnin’
Find a little talk with Jesus makes it right
I may have doubts and fears
My eyes be filled with tears
But Jesus is a friend who watches day and night
I go to him in prayer
He knows my every care
And just a little talk with Jesus makes it right
At an early age Derricks showed an aptitude for music and poetry. The money he found in the theater that day went to pay for music lessons at the Cadek Conservatory of Music in Knoxville, a school started by prominent Chattanooga violinist and music teacher Joseph Cadek; it was one of the first such schools to admit blacks. He also had two years of college at the Tennessee Agricultural and Industrial State College (now Tennessee State University) in Nashville.
While living in Chattanooga, Derricks connected with the Stamps-Baxter Music Company, which had an office in his hometown. Stamps-Baxter made its living on an affinity for shape-note singing. According to the Mississippi Encyclopedia, “Shape-note singing is a musical tradition and practice of community gatherings singing sacred music using a system of musical notation in which the noteheads are printed in distinct shapes that indicate their scale degree and musical syllable (fa, sol, la, etc.).” In other words, each note on the musical scale is given a “shape” other than the traditional “oval.” The “shaping” was done to facilitate the recognition of a note’s “sound” rather than using just its position on a scale or musical staff.
At the tender age of 24, Stamps-Baxter published a collection of Derrick’s songs under the title Pearls of Paradise. He also found employment as a music director. Sometime before 1935, he moved to Washington D.C. to direct the music program at Vermont Avenue Baptist Church. While in our nation’s capitol, he met and married Cecile Gay, but unfortunately their marriage only lasted a few short years.
The first time “Just a Little Talk with Jesus” was made public was in a Stamps-Baxter publication entitled Harbor Bells No. 6. All indications are that Derricks actually edited an old negro spiritual called “Little Talk with Jesus,” made popular by the Fisk Jubilee Singers under the direction of John Wesley Work Jr.
“Although the Fisk versions of the song were printed starting in 1902, one version had been part of the repertoire of the Fisk Jubilee Singers as early as 1900. On one surviving concert program from 24 April 1900, at the Congregational Church of South Royalton, Vermont, the song ‘Little Talk with Jesus Makes it Right’ was featured among fifteen songs. The director of the group at the time was John W. Work II.” (Hymnology Archive)
There is a notable clarification that needs to be pointed out in Derricks’ remake, though. No one is quite sure what he meant by “… when you feel a little prayer wheel turnin’ … And you will know a little fire is burnin’ …”
“A prayer wheel is a Buddhist originated instrument with mantras written on it. The writer of the song, Cleavant Derricks, likely did not know that fact. In the early part of the last century some Christians, including Billy Graham, openly used prayer wheels. Apparently, according to a recent discovery of the Liesborn Prayer Wheel, the use of a prayer wheel in Christianity goes back to the 12th century. It has been defined as a map of ‘the soul’s journey to God’ or ‘a Christian way of life,’ a ‘meditation aid’ and ‘a study guide.’” (www.truthkeepers.com)
The use of the “prayer wheel” by Christians down through the centuries (obviously including Billy Graham!) has never been identical to the practice in Buddhism! Whereas Buddhists will fill a revolving prayer wheel/cylinder with mantras/prayers and spin the cylinder in order to “activate” their written prayers (they believe the motion of the cylinder is equivalent to the actual practice of prayer), Christians on the other hand have used “prayer wheels” (similar to pie charts) to organize the content of their prayers and the time spent in prayer. The Christian’s “prayer wheel” has similar features to a “prayer list.”
Because of the obscurity surrounding Derrick’s “prayer wheel,” the United Methodist Church debated whether to include the song in their hymnal.
“Unfortunately, it is unknown what Derricks intended by including it in his song or what his own personal experience with a prayer wheel might have been. The editorial committee discussed this line and considered replacing it with something more explicitly Christian, something like ‘feel the Holy Spirit churning,’ a line used in some recorded and printed versions. The committee left the original line in for the following reasons:
• Prayer wheels were used by some Christian slaves and later by post-Civil War African American worshipers;
• Prayer wheels have been used by southern and rural Christian whites in worship and private devotion;
• Even today some Pentecostals and Charismatics use prayer wheels;
• Christian prayer wheels are being manufactured, sold, and used today;
The committee struggled with editing out a well-known phrase from a well-known gospel song. While it is known that prayer wheels are of great importance in Buddhism, the committee also recognized their place in broader Christian practice, if not usually United Methodist. In the end, the committee realized that the context of the prayer wheel in this song is intentionally Christian and not at all connected with Buddhism.” (www.umcdiscipleship.org)
In July 1942, Derricks enlisted in the United States Army as a warrant officer; his term of service ended in October of 1945. After his military service, Derricks focused on pastoral ministry, even doing some training at American Baptist Theological Seminary in Nashville (now American Baptist College). He subsequently pastored in several churches, including Emmanuel Baptist Church in Beloit, Wisconsin, and Pleasant Grove Baptist Church in Washington D.C. Facing what he called “major medical bills”, Derricks approached Canaanland Music in Nashville, Tennessee, to ask about selling more of his songs.
“They found out he was still good at writing songs, and they recorded two albums using him and several members of his family. The first album was “Reverend Cleavant Derricks and Family Singing His Own Just a Little Talk with Jesus” in 1975. The album had nine other songs Derricks had written. The next year, 1976, they released a second album, “Satisfaction Guaranteed.” He did the recording with a 105-degree fever that he thought was a cold. Instead, it turned out to be colon cancer. He also began to suffer with memory loss due to his illness.” (www.bereanbibleheritage.org)
Cleavant Derricks died on April 14, 1977, and is buried at New Gray Cemetery in Knoxville, Tennessee. He was inducted into the Gospel Music Association Hall of Fame in 1984.
Sorry, no records were found. Please adjust your search criteria and try again.
Sorry, unable to load the Maps API.