My life flows on in endless song, above earth's lamentation
I hear that real, though far-off hymn that hails a new creation.
Through all the tumult and the strife, I hear that music ringing.
It sounds an echo in my soul: how can I keep from singing?
What though the tempest round me roar, I hear the truth it liveth.
What though the darkness round me close, songs in the night it giveth.
No storm can shake my inmost calm while to that rock I'm clinging.
Since love is lord of heaven and earth, how can I keep from singing?
When men and women conquer fear, with prison doors wide swinging.*
When friends rejoice both far and near, how can I keep from singing?
In prison cell or dungeon vile, our thoughts to them are winging.
When friends by shame are undefiled, how can I keep from singing?
There are a number of versions of this song, originally a Christian hymn, but the one I was familiar with since childhood was as recorded by (among others) Pete Seeger, which downplays religious aspects of the lyrics (How can I keep from singing? is also the title of Seeger's biography by David King Dunaway). However, the line at the beginning of the third verse in that version:
*When tyrants tremble, sick with fear, and hear their death-knell ringing,
has long troubled me, since I oppose the death penalty for anyone, even tyrants. As a teen, I rewrote the line in a sort of half-assed way ( ... and hear those peace bells ringing -- only two words changed, and still leaves the question, why should even tyrants be "sick with fear"?) but only for my own use, and perhaps singing to my kids, in later years.
(As an aside on this point, I entirely concur with Ariel Dorfman, who wrote in an open letter to the bloody-handed ex-dictator Augusto Pinochet following the latter's arrest: I want you to know, General, that I do not believe in capital punishment. What I do believe in is human redemption. ...I highly recommend the full interview, especially Dorfman's poetic "sentence" for Pinochet's crimes... but I digress...).
So when a few years ago I began singing (again) with my dad, who has been suffering from Alzheimer's now for some five years, this song was a natural part of our shared repertoire, and that particular verse of course came up as problematic, for both of us. He told me someone at their church had a better replacement verse for that line, so I asked my friend Becca Whitla, music director at Holy Trinity in downtown Toronto (my parents' congregation and the one I grew up in). She told me about the powerful new line I now use at the beginning of the third verse:
When men and women conquer fear, with prison doors wide swinging,
and she also told me that the person who had penned the substitution was in fact dad (he no longer recalls having composed the change -- only that there is a better verse). At the time, of course, I had no idea how that new line would end up speaking to me.