Of the 153 articles on this site, probably 140 of them profile individual folk or roots songs - and 11 of those are either spirituals or gospel numbers (tied, by the way, with sea chanteys for the largest number of posts on a single subject). Given the fact that the great majority of the songs presented here are American, the rather high percentage of religiously-oriented songs is hardly surprising. After all, if you think back to the origins of European colonization of the new world, it was either religion or money or a truly unholy combination of the two that brought the Spanish, French, and English to North America. The Spanish came with the cross in one hand and the sword in the other, the French with dreams of wealth and empire with Jesuits in tow. The English, we all remember, seemed to split the difference, with 1607's Jamestown being a primarily commercial enterprise and the Plymouth and Massachusetts Bay plantations of the 1620s mainly religious in their foundation.
But that is not the whole story, truth being always more shaded and complex than the simple-minded wish that it were. The Jamestonians were an upright group of high church Anglicans who enforced religious law as well as civil, and the supposed theocrats of Puritan New England were also industrious workers and sharp-eyed businessmen who viewed material wealth as a sign of God's approval and quite possibly of that ever-elusive sign of election. And yet - it was those same Anglicans who brought the curse of slavery to these shores (often on Yankee slave ships) and those God-fearing Puritans who hanged Quakers, adulterers, "sodomites," and "witches." Thus the troubling history of the toxic combination of religion and state power that led to that man-made miracle, the First Amendment that separates private religion from public policy.
Fortunately for those of us who love folk music, no such "wall of separation" as Jefferson termed it existed for our hymns and religious songs, which often moved across racial, regional, and sectarian lines to become a significant element in our national musical heritage. Think, for a moment, of "Amazing Grace," an English hymn that was first published on our side of the Atlantic around 1780 and quickly became far more popular here than it ever was in its country of origin. Some music historians term it a spiritual, or slave song - but it was sung in the 19th century from one end of the country to another, in churches of virtually every denomination and creed except for Catholicism, which did not until only a few decades ago approve its use in church (because justification by faith alone is implicit in the text).
In the sense of crossing lines and borders, "Amazing Grace" has quite a bit in common with today's song, known both as "You Must Come In At The Door" and "Heaven Is So High," among several other titles. This latter tune may be of 20th century origin, and it was certainly popularized from the mid-1930s on by the legendary Golden Gate Quartet (a group originating in Virginia, the "golden gate" being that door that You Don't Knock at and through which you must come). However, versions published in choir books in 1924 (as "Open Door"), 1930 (as "My God Is So High"), and 1933 (as "You Must Come In Through The Lamb") strongly suggest that the song is much older, a legitimate antebellum spiritual, and early copyrights generally identify the number as "traditional."
Though there are several gospel-styled versions of "So High" on YouTube, nothing there currently sounds quite as traditional as Doc Watson's reading. This rendition, like others I have posted in different articles about spirituals, is an Appalachian sensibility transliterating a black song:
...and Doc can still make a guitar sing like that, though he is approaching 90.
Probably the highest-profile version of the song out and about now is from the late Rev. Timothy Wright, who rearranged both its melody and lyrics - this is a full-on modern gospel treatment:
The KCR Trio of North Carolina follows more closely the earlier published versions:
The good-natured high spirits of the song made it a natural selection for the pop-folk groups of the 1960s. The Kingston Trio included it in their Back In Town album recorded live in 1964 at San Francisco's showcase nightclub, the Hungry i, site of the Trio's first significant success several years before this:
After the swinging bass opening, note the 12-string guitar instrumental lead in. Uncredited on the album was Glen Campbell, even then a legendary studio musician and member of the now-celebrated Wrecking Crew, and the fact that the group's usual 12-string player John Stewart is clearly whaling away on the 5-string banjo here is a clear indication that Campbell is on the 12.
Wesleyan University's The Highwaymen (of "Michael, Row The Boat Ashore" fame) present a similar arrangement from the Steve Lawrence & Eydie Gorme show:
This is a later configuration of the group, from the mid-60s.
Finally - Peter, Paul and Mary combined "So High" into a medley with "Rock My Soul" and had a minor hit with the result. No YouTube video exists at the moment of their version, but here is Peter Yarrow solo in 1964 in Australia leading a group sing of the PP&M arrangement:
Plenty of variation here indeed, as is only fitting for a song so thoroughly embedded in the religious folkways of a country as genuinely diverse in its peoples and creeds as ours is.