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An incredible piece for Gospel choir: “John the Revelator”

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It's much harder to perform than it sounds.

When John looked over calvary’s hill
Heard a rumbling like a chariot’s wheel
Tell us John, what did you see?
“I saw a beast rise rising from the sea!”

Originally written by the preeminent blues man Blind Willie Johnson, “John the Revelator” follows the story of John of Patmos in his writing of the Book of Revelation. A portion of the book focuses on the opening of seven seals and the resulting apocalyptic events, which this song references in several passages.

In the late 20th century, composers Paul Caldwell and Sean Ivory arranged the blues standard for a full choir and piano, resulting in this lively Gospel tune. The song has a lot going on in three sections. It begins with the melodic section, which is where most of the lyrics and storytelling are contained.

In the second section the dynamic changes to a soft question, “Tell us who is writing.” With the help of some flair from the piano the volume grows and the chorus begins to clap. Around the line “time for jubilation,” a second group begins clapping in an syncopated rhythm with the first group, creating a more urgent feel. This part in particular is tough on the singers, as not only must they keep their voices on beat, but they have to contend with the other group to maintain their clapping rhythm.

Just as the sopranos hit their high notes, the entire chorus stomps and claps several times before moving into the third section, which is a breakdown. From here each voice part is singing their own separate line. This frantic cacophony of sound is symbolic of the impending apocalypse, which releasing the seals brings about.

If you’re interested in hearing the original version by Blind Willie Johnson, you can find it below.

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