Johnny Cash & The Carters Sing ‘Were You There (When They Crucified My Lord)’

Johnny Cash & The Carters Sing ‘Were You There (When They Crucified My Lord)’ | I Love Classic Rock Videos

via John Grytbakk / Youtube

In 1962, Cash and the Carter Family shared the stage on a television show to deliver a rendition of “Were You There.” This captivating performance, captured in timeless black-and-white imagery, recently resurfaced online some years back.

In the recorded performance, Cash took the forefront, channeling profound emotion through his voice as he recounts the suffering endured by Jesus on the cross. The song’s heartrending narrative found a counterbalance in its exquisite beauty, largely owing to the harmonious contributions of the Carter ladies.

One of the singers, Anita Carter, handled herself very well and stuck out as a brilliant soloist alongside Cash. Her ethereal and delicate voice gracefully filled the air, providing an enchanting dimension to the entire rendition.

Experience this passionate performance through the video below:

A timeless hymn

The hymn now recognized as “Were You There (When They Crucified My Lord)” possesses a history that stretches back further than one might anticipate.

Initially documented in William Eleazar Barton’s compilation “Old Plantation Hymns” in 1899, there is a belief that it originated from the creative expressions of slaves during the 19th century.

With the passage of decades, this song found a place within the Episcopal Church hymnal. This inclusion marked a significant milestone, as it marked the first instance of a spiritual being featured in an American collection of hymns.

The essence of the song revolves around the crucifixion of Jesus, where the narrator addresses the audience with fervor. Throughout certain verses, the narrator eloquently depicts the anguish endured by Jesus on the cross, as evidenced by lines like, “Were you there when they pierced him in the side? O sometimes it causes me to tremble! tremble! Tremble!”

It wasn’t just a favorite of The Man in Black himself, it was also a known fact that the apostle of peace Mahatma Gandhi loved “Were You There”, as detailed in Howard Thurman’s autobiography.

Apart from Cash, other well-known artists who recorded the spiritual were Paul Robeson, Marion Williams, Roy Acuff, Phil Keaggy, Max Roach, Diamanda Galás, Harry Belafonte, The Seldom Scene, Diamond Version (with Neil Tennant), Bayard Rustin, Rajaton, and Chris Rice.

A Johnny Cash staple

“Were You There” has undergone numerous transformations and exhibited lyrical variations over time, yet a consistent thread endures: it maintains its status as a cherished hymn, rendering it a favored selection for musical artists to interpret.

Johnny Cash frequently delivered live renditions of the song, with one recorded iteration making its way onto the album Johnny Cash at Madison Square Garden.

Despite his outlaw persona, Cash was a devout Christian who allocated hours to studying the Biblical scriptures in depth. 

His musicianship allowed him to find a distinct arrangement for the well-known hymn, and have performed it several times, with the Carters as frequent collaborators during many of the performances.