I love this song from Dave Eggar’s 2010 album Kingston Morning. Featuring the vocals of Dr. Ralph Stanley and with Eggar on cello, “Jacob’s Vision” is a simple hymn that praises Jesus for his mediation between God and man. It interprets Christ’s death in light of Jacob’s dream about the angel-trodden ladder (Genesis 28:10-22), the cross being seen as that which was raised up to connect earth to heaven, so that man could, by trust in its strength and stability, climb up to God. This narrative link is rooted in John 1:51, in which Jesus prophesies to Nathanael, “Very truly I tell you, you will see heaven open, and the angels of God ascending and descending on the Son of Man.”
Both the words and melody of “Jacob’s Vision” are traditional, having been revised and published in various hymnals since the nineteenth century, but this particular musical arrangement by Dave Eggar and Chuck Palmer I found the most moving. It opens with a series of sustained notes played on the cello, but then when the words cut in for the opening chorus, the cello is plucked instead of bowed, with the pitches climbing upward, to mimic the sound of ascending footsteps on ladder rungs. (This playing technique is called pizzicato.) On the first verse the technique switches back to bowing; the mood is initially one of heaviness, to evoke the weariness Jacob felt in his travels—and, in parallel, the weariness of sinners before they look up to Christ. The tones plod along and end in definite breaks. But then in line three the heaviness shifts to lightness, openness, mimicking Jacob’s expanded awareness as he experiences his vision. These tones have more resonance, a more vibrant quality; they gently ease into one another and uplift the piece.
The combination of classical instrumentation with a bluegrass vocal style is quite beautiful and unique. The cello gives the song an elegant, ethereal quality, while Dr. Ralph Stanley contributes to its simultaneously raw, homely feel. Each of the two performers brings his own style of soul and improvisation to the piece.
The above YouTube clip is a shortened version; to listen to the extended version that appears on Kingston Morning, click the Spotify play button below.
Curious as always about song history, I tried to dig into its origins. (The CD liner notes attribute it as “traditional.”) I couldn’t pinpoint an original composition year but read in various sources that the hymn was probably a product of the Methodist revival in eighteenth-century England. The original melody may be even older. The first published version I was able to trace is in Hymns, selected from various authors, for use of The Evangelical Association and all lovers of pious devotion, fifth ed. (New Berlin, Penn.: Henry Fisher, 1850): #542, in which it is given the title “Jacob’s Ladder.” This publication includes text only.
The publication that first popularized the song, though, was Henry Ramsden Bramley and John Stainer’s Christmas Carols New and Old (London: Novello, Ewer & Co., 1871), where it is #35. Apparently, and oddly, the song was meant to be sung at Christmastime. [Update: See comment at bottom.]
The Bramley & Stainer version uses a different melody than Eggar. Eggar’s arrangement is based on an old-time mountain music version recorded by Dr. Ralph Stanley in 1960 on the album For the Good People: Sacred Songs by The Stanley Brothers and the Clinch Mountain Boys. In his autobiography Man of Constant Sorrow: My Life and Times (p. 69), Stanley writes that he learned the song from Enoch M. Rose, a Free Will Baptist preacher at Rugby Church in Caney Ridge, Virginia. It’s assumed that Rose adapted it from a traditional folk tune. This version was also recorded by Ricky Skaggs on his 1999 album Soldier of the Cross.
Here’s a side-by-side comparison I created of the song’s most common lyrical variations. (Click on the chart to view at a larger size.)
These lyrics are so rich, using Jacob’s ladder as a type of Christ to explain how believers are given access to God via his crucified body: “This ladder is Jesus, the glorious God-man, / Whose blood richly streaming from Calvary ran, / On his perfect atonement to heaven we rise, / And sing in the mansions prepar’d in the skies.” Even after generations of climbing, the ladder remains firmly planted, intact, and divinely secured.