Just a Closer Walk with Thee is a traditional gospel song that has been covered by many artists. Performed as either an instrumental or vocal, “A Closer Walk” is perhaps the most frequently played number in the hymn and dirge section of traditional New Orleans jazz funerals.
From the excellent series, Treme, here’s a funeral scene from the first episode:
The ‘jazz funeral’ starts off sombre. On its way to the cemetery, the brass band plays soulful, sad funeral hymns called ‘dirges’, it should be something that reminds mourners of life’s ups and downs. The slow tune lasts until the procession reaches its final destination, at which point they ‘cut the body loose’ – send the hearse off into the cemetery.
I really love this song and have “dug up” a few examples of great artists doing their version of this old tune.
Let’s start with “the voice” George Jones:
Here’s Johnny Cash’ version, it’s even better!
The author of “A Closer Walk” is unknown. Circumstantial evidence strongly suggests it dates back to southern African-American churches of the 2nd half of the 19th century, possibly even earlier. The song became better known nationally in the 1930s when African-American churches held huge musical conventions. In the 1940s, a boom of recordings in many genera recorded the number, ranging from Southern gospel to jazz and brass bands.
Patsy Cline (audio only):
The first known recording was by the Selah Jubilee Singers on October 8, 1941, (Decca Records 7872) New York City; with Thurman Ruth and John Ford lead vocal; Fred Baker, lead baritone; Monroe Clark, baritone; J. B. Nelson, bass vocal; and Fred Baker on guitar. Rosetta Tharpe also recorded the song on December 2, 1941 (Decca 8594), with Lucky Millinder and His Orchestra.
Taj Mahal, Eric Clapton and Wynton Marsalis has this fantastic version!
The revived interest in traditional New Orleans jazz resulted in multiple recordings of the number, including a 1945 session by Bunk Johnson’s Brass Band featuring numbers Johnson had played in New Orleans before he left in 1915. In 1950, it was a million-seller for Red Foley.
The Avett Brothers:
In 1958, an unreleased home recording was recorded by Elvis Presley made in Waco, Texas on May 27. Presley’s studio version can be heard on Just A Closer Walk With Thee (2000) (Czech CD on Memory label). Tennessee Ernie Ford made the charts with it in the late 1950s. By the end of the 1970s, more than a hundred artists had recorded the song.
We will end with a collaboration between Bob Dylan and Johnny Cash (audio only and a bit demo-like to be honest):
Just a closer walk with Thee,
Grant it, Jesus, is my plea,
Daily walking close to Thee,
Let it be, dear Lord, let it be.
I am weak, but Thou art strong,
Jesus, keep me from all wrong,
I’ll be satisfied as long
As I walk, let me walk close to Thee.
Through this world of toil and snares,
If I falter, Lord, who cares?
Who with me my burden shares?
None but Thee, dear Lord, none but Thee.
When my feeble life is o’er,
Time for me will be no more,
Guide me gently, safely o’er
To Thy kingdom’s shore, to Thy shore.