Who Will Be a Witness for My Lord?


“Who will be a witness for my lord?” arranged by Joel Thompson


Joel Thompson is building a reputation as an artist with a forthright focus on social justice. National attention followed the 2015 debut of his composition Seven Last Words of the Unarmed, which put the dying words of African American men at the center of an unusually powerful choral work. For his VocalEssence commissioned arrangement of Who Will Be a Witness for My Lord?, Thompson found himself returning to an early strength.

“I got my start in composition through arranging,” Thompson said. “I had an a cappella group in high school and college with my brother, sister, and two other friends, and I found a way to imbue my arrangements for our group with a style specific to me—my friends would say ‘That’s a Joel arrangement’ because they could hear it in the chords and in the form.”

“I set out to create an arrangement of Who Will Be a Witness for My Lord? that would infuse it with black identity,” said Thompson. “I wanted the listener to be able to hear those nuances that would come from singers raised in a black church tradition.”

It’s the sound of Thompson’s own heritage. “I’m black, and the boundaries of the communities I identify with fluctuate, because I’m also an immigrant: a Jamaican-American who moved to the U.S. when I was 10. Anytime I sit down to compose, I’m hoping to benefit one of the communities I’m a part of.”

He brought balance to Who Will Be a Witness for My Lord? by writing new verses. “The first verse celebrates Samson, and I figure if we were talking about him, why not talk about Esther, one of the most famous females in the Bible? I set out to explain how Esther was a witness for the Lord in four lines, and you wouldn’t think that would take too long to write—but I didn’t want the lines to feel anachronistic. They had to feel like a part of the original work. Doing that within the limits of the metrical rhythm and rhyme scheme was the most challenging part of the arrangement.”

The musical approach came easier. “Spirituals leave room for improvisation around a known melody. By the time audiences hear the second verse telling Esther’s story, they will be anticipating a variation on what they heard in the first verse. In that verse, Samson’s verse, the sopranos have the melody the entire time, so in Esther’s verse, I gave it to the tenors, and changed its contour to highlight different voices and accentuate different parts of the words.”

“Spirituals work for me in this way: when I’m at an emotional low point, it’s always a song that comes to me and provides me with solace,” Thompson said, reflecting on the form. “Or, I experience moments of great joy, and a song comes with me in that moment. Connected through culture and spirituality and history, spirituals come to me when I need them.”

“These songs that are directly connected to the existence of African slaves in America. Through the lens of Christian theology, spirituals express deep pathos, yearning for freedom, sorrow, joy—all tied to that experience. Who Will Be a Witness for My Lord? isn’t rooted in grief; it’s a call for action, and I love that. It gives examples of people who exhibited strength and then turns to the listener and asks, ‘Who will be a Witness for my Lord?’ I feel like there is so much complacency, so much hoping someone else will take care of it in the world right now. This spiritual has the attitude of, ‘Esther did it. Samson did it. Who is going to do it? You have to do it. I want the audience to take that piece of ‘I will be a witness for my Lord!’ away with them—to be the thing that gets them going!”

Concert Program


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