"Keep Your Hand(s) On The Plow" (also known as "Hold On"and "Gospel Plow") is a traditional American folk song. It is listed in the Roud Folk Song Index, number 10075. The title is biblical, based on Luke 9:62.
It was transformed as far back as the 1940’s into a political song, and in the 1960's was used as the basis for the famous anthem "Keep Your Eyes on the Prize", which was often sung at civil rights rallies in the sixties.
The lyrics to this modern Civil Rights version of the song, "Keep Your Eyes on the Prize" are often attributed to Alice Wine from Johns Island, South Carolina. Mrs. Wine was a member of the Moving Star Hall and the Progressive Club on Johns Island.
It is doubtful that Mrs. Wine actually composed the lyrics herself. More likely she had heard the revised refrain and variations on the verses of the older song from the congregation at the praise hall.
The leading Paul and Silas-stanzas in the modern "Keep Your Eyes on the Prize" lyrics were already present in some versions of the older "Keep Your Hand on the Plow."
Mrs Wine is credited by Candie Carawan only with having passed onto Guy Carawan the revision of the title from "Keep Your Hand on the Plow" to "Keep Your Eyes on the Prize."
Our Singing Country shows these Paul and Silas stanzas were already in use in 1949 and before.
The earliest documented reference to the older song, "Gospel Plow," is in Alan Lomax's 1949 book "Our Singing Country" (page 44-45)
The book above references a 1937 recording by Elihu Trusty of Paintsville, Kentucky, which is in the Library of Congress (Ref No .1397 A1).
Lomax's references for Gospel Plow also cite two earlier works. The first is from Vol 2 of English Folk Songs from the Southern Appalachians published in 1932,
In this book by Cecil J. Sharp a version, which was "sung by girls at Oneida School, Ky., Aug. 18, 1917." is mentioned on page. 292; with music).
Notes (by Karpeles?) say "This ... is a 'Holiness' hymn. It is evidently influenced by negro spirituals." (page 412)
The second reference is to a 1928 book, American Negro Folk-Songs, which shows an African-American heritage for the original song.
Newman I. White recorded "Keep yo' hand on the gospel plow" in his American Negro Folk-Songs ((1928; reprint ed., [1964?], p. 115; no title is given; text only).
It was "reported from Durham, N.C., 1925, MS. of N.I. White. From Creedmore, N.C., as sung by Ed Lloyd, who says there are several stanzas."
Keep yo' hand on the gospel plow,
Wouldn't take nothin' for my journey now, Holy Ghost.
Keep yo' hand on the gospel plow,
Hold on, hold on,
Keep yo' hand on the gospel plow,
Didn't come here for to stay always,
Just come here to fill my place.
I got a mother in the promised land,
Never shall rest till I shake her hand.
Also see the next links:
The first recording I could find:
(o) Hall Johnson Negro Choir (1930) (as "Keep Yo' Hand on the Plow, Hold On")
Recorded August 12, 1930 in New York in 24th St. Studio.
Released on Victor 36020
As I said above "Gospel Plow" was transformed in the 1940’s into a political song: "Hold On"
Around 1942, versions begin to appear with a new text, referring to the incipient United Nations, and the need for solidarity in the struggle against fascism. The message changed: from ‘keep the faith’, to ‘keep up the fight’, and "Keep Your Hands On The Plow" becomes "Keep Your Hand On That Gun". In the 1960s there was a similar re-texting — ‘Keep your hand on the plow’ becomes ‘Keep your eyes on the prize’, a rallying cry for civil rights.
(c) Union Boys (1944) (as "Hold On")
Members: Josh White, Burl Ives, Tom Glazer, Alan Lomax, Pete Seeger, Brownie McGhee and Sonny Terry.
The Union Boys was a high powered group brought into the studio in March 1944 by Alan Lomax (1915-2002) to record a number of labor-oriented songs. They never performed publicly as a group. Some of the songs were issued by Asch Records as Songs For Victory,
Recorded New York City, March 11, 1944
The album Songs For Victory (Music For Political action) was released on the Asch-label #346.
(c) Laura Duncan, Ernie Lieberman, Betty Sanders & Osborne Smith 1952
Recorded in New York on January 31, 1952
Released on the Hootenanny-label #105
(c) Frank Warner (1952) (as "Keep Your Hand On The Plow")
Released on the album "American Folk Songs and Ballads" (Elektra-label EKLP 3)
(c) Folksmiths (1958) (as "Hold On (Keep Your Hand On The Plow)"
Released on the album "We've Got Some Singing To Do"
(c) The Folk Singers (1958)
(c) Gateway Singers (1958)
(c) Mahalia Jackson with the Duke Ellington Orchestra (as "Keep Your Hand on the Plow")
Recorded at the Newport Jazz Festival in 1958.
Just now I realize how much the Duke's "It Don't Mean A Thing (If It Ain't Got That Swing") is indebted to "Keep Your Hands On The Plow"
(c) Pete Seeger (with audience) (1959) (as "United Nations Make A Chain")
Recorded September 1959 at Carnegie Hall, NY
(c) Odetta (1960) (as "Hold On")
Recorded live in concert at Carnegie Hall on April 8, 1960
featured support from Bill Lee on string bass. ( Bill Lee ==> father of Spike Lee)
(c) The Montgomery Gospel Trio, The Nashville Quartet, and Guy Carawan (1961) (as "Hold On")
Recorded in 1961 and released on Folkways Records FH 5591
(c) Pete Seeger with Memphis Slim and Willie Dixon (1962) (as "Hold On")
Recorded in 1960 Live at the Village Gate
Released in 1962 on Folkways FA 2451
(c) Pete Seeger 1961 (as "Hold On")
Released August 1961 on the album Sing Out With Pete! (Folkways 2455)
(c) Bob Dylan (1962) (as "Gospel Plow")
It was around this time that the traditional "Keep Your Hand On The Plow" was transformed into the Civil Rights Protest song "Keep Your Eyes On The Prize". As I said above it is not exactly clear who is responsible for this transformation, but Alice Wine is generally credited for this, though she probably only passed the transformed lyrics to Guy Carawan.
(c) Pete Seeger and the SNCC Freedom Singers (1963)
Pete Seeger has recorded EYES ON THE PRIZE live with the SNCC Freedom Singers at his 1963 Carnegie Hall concert. It can now be found on: We Shall Overcome: The Complete Carnegie Hall Recording June 8, 1963 (1989 - Columbia 45312)
(c) Len Chandler (Guitar & vocal), Joan Baez (Backing Vocal), Stuart Scharf (Guitar & Backing Vocal), Bob Dylan (Guitar, Unenthusiastic Backing Vocal)
(as "Keep Your Eyes On The Prize (Hold On)")
Recorded at National Mall/Lincoln Memorial Washington, DC August 28, 1963
The song is at 16 min in the next YT
(c) James Orange and Protestors (1965) (medley Which Side Are You On / Keep Your Eye On The Prize
(c) Peggy Lee (1968) (as "Hand On The Plow")
Listen to a sample here:
(c) Screaming Trees (1996) (as "Gospel Plow")
(c) Sweet Honey In The Rock (2000) (as "Eyes On The Prize (Hold On)")
Performed on the Original Motion Picture Soundtrack "Freedom Song"
(c) Bruce Springsteen (2006) (as "Eyes On The Prize")
Recorded on January 21, 2006 at the third of the three Seeger Sessions.
(c) Mavis Staples (2007) (as "Eyes On The Prize")
(c) Joss Stone (2009) (as "Eyes On The Prize")
Performed on the Original Soundtrack of the movie "Soundtrack For A Revolution".
Songs called “Paul and Silas” were recorded in 1928 by the South Carolina Quartette, in 1932 by Snowball and Sunshine (unissued), and in 1933 by the Diamond Four, but these songs are not part of the songcluster in this post.
And another song called "Paul and Silas" recorded by Josh White in 1935 and the Stanley Brothers a.o. is also not part of this songcluster.