“Swing Low Sail High” by The Wailin’ Jennys

A woman I looked up to when I was a kid died of cancer today. From before I was a teenager, Susan Kisslinger modeled for me how to be a skeptical, curious, and loyal member of a faith community. For those of us she has left behind, I think the best way to honor her memory is to keep smiling, laughing, and asking hard questions with that sweet, generous gentleness that she embodied with her whole being. I hope Susan’s spirit is sailing high.

I picked today’s Psalm/Psong of the day with Susan in mind. Also, I’m a sucker for close harmonies. The shimmery instrumentation’s not bad, either. And did I mention the lyrics? I had one of those days today where I felt like I’d failed people right out of the gate, so this song was a good balm for me.

“Swing Low Sail High” is the first track on The Wailin’ Jennys’ new album, “Bright Morning Stars.” I’ve deciphered most of the lyrics from repeated listenings. There’s one verse in the middle, though, that I can’t quite get, so you’re on your own with that one.

Update 10/14/2011: With the help of a couple of commenters, I think we’ve pieced together that mysterious middle verse. Thank you Carolyn and Kara!


I have failed you
I have failed you
I have lost my way, lost my nerve, and failed you
But I love you
How I love you
I have turned my back, left you, alas, but I love you

Oh settin’ sun don’t sink before I’ve found my heart
Heart don’t give up now while there’s still time
Time don’t beat your old retreat
Stay a little while with me
‘til I’ve looked the whole thing in the eye

I have waited, I have waited
For the big reveal,
Even keel, I have waited.
But there’s no one who makes it all come true,
Just altars gathering dust while we bow to them.

Oh night bring all your shadows and your silence
Silence make a hostage of my mind
Mind bring on your trickery
Black dogs nip on at my heels
‘til I’ve looked the whole thing in the eye

Swing low
Sail high
Swing low
Sail high

I have failed you
I have failed you
I’ve closed my heart and I have failed you
But I love you
How I love you
All my days were rearranged to say I love you

Oh, setting sun don’t weep for all the things you lose
Morning comes as sure as it must die
Dying is such mystery
Yet I wonder will it be
when I’ve looked the whole thing in the eye

Swing low
Sail high
Swing low
Sail high


16 responses to ““Swing Low Sail High” by The Wailin’ Jennys

  1. barbara howard

    Joy, We just finished a session that was originally meant to be the first chapter of our text in Catherine Keller’s ON THE MYSTERY. When news of Susan’s death came, two of the members thought they might not come. (Our small class of five is Patricia Gates (one of Susan’s closest friends), Doreen McKiernan (Susan’s cousin and dear friend), Suzanne Mclaughlin, a friend from the congregation, Jill Phipps, another friend from the congregation, and I. Instead of having a class we shared a time remembering Susan. I played the “Breathe on Me Breath of God” by the Miserable Offenders (a gift from you, dear one) Patricia shared an Aztec Prayer, and Suzanne spoke about Susan Kisslinger’s breath being breathed by us and our breath continuing to be breathed by others. We had a wonderful time of celebration and remembering. I wish we’d had your post, but I’m going to forward it to the class members. Blessings on you dearest daughter.

    • Mom, I wish I’d had a chance to sit around with you all and reminisce. I loved the story you shared in an email today, about how in Adult Ed classes at church Susan would begin every comment with a smile and say, “As you know, I’m an agnostic.” And then she’d proceed to make the most amazing, faith-filled observations, or ask the most penetrating questions. She was such a blessing to so many, as are you.

  2. My theory for that verse:

    I have waited, I have waited
    For the big reveal,
    Even keel, I have waited.
    But there’s no one who makes it all come true,
    Just altars gathering dust while we felt too bad.

    Good Psong, thank you.

    • Oh Carolyn, THANK YOU! I got as much as the first line in my first listening and then my frustration at not deciphering what came next made it harder and harder to understand anything else. I listened to it again on the T today and was so happy to understand this verse!

  3. Well, I saw you right out of the gate this morning, and you were no failure! You bless many lives; mine is way up there.

    I too have had experience with losing people; and with sometimes somehow how they stay around. Leaving Emmanuel this morning, saying good bye to a friend there, I heard myself say, “Stay well, my friend; stay well, be clear, and do the best you can.” These were the last words I had from a much loved hospice friend many years ago. Thanks, Mrs. B.

  4. I’m sorry for your loss. This is a Psong I like for these moments. It’s another song from Quadrophenia. An under appreciated classic.

  5. Dorene McKiernan

    Thank you, Joy, for that tribute for Susan. Your parents were a peaceful island in the storm this evening to be open to the needs of the moment and break bread and share stories with us. I hope to meet you and your family one day.

  6. My dear, I send you hugs in your loss of this inspiring person — and thanks for being an inspiring person yourself. I needed to hear something wise and loving today and you are it. And your goddaughter will love this song, i see her tapping my creditcard on iTunes very shortly to acquire this album :-)…

  7. Joy,
    I am so very sorry for this loss – in your life, and in the lives Susan touched, even as evidenced by the people today commenting….a small smattering of her influence.

    I’ve been turning, over-and-over, the psalms of my life since you offered us this idea for Lent. Thank you. The constant churning of my heart and mind has already been so fruitful.

    I’ve been searching for a link for this song on-line, but haven’t done better than the audio on the official website: Steven Curtis Chapman’s “Questions” from his latest CD “Beauty will Rise.” (the back-story on this cd is that he wrote it in response to the horrific death of his adopted daughter…by his birth-son accidentally backing the car over her playing in their driveway.)


    Who are You God
    For You are turning out to be
    So much different than I imagined

    And where are you God
    Cuz I am finding life to be
    So much harder than I had planned

    Know that I am afraid
    To ask these questions
    But You know they are there

    And if you know my heart
    The way that I believe you do
    You know that I believe in You
    Still I have these questions

    Like How could you God
    How could You be so good and strong
    And make a world that can be so painful

    And where were you God
    I know you had to be right there
    I know you never turn your head

    You know that I’m confused
    By all this mystery
    You know I get afraid
    But if you know my heart
    As completely as I trust you do
    Oh you know that I trust in you

    Is it true that for every tear I cry
    You cry a thousand more
    Cuz you weep for those that weep

    And are you, just holding yourself back
    From crushing all the pain and evil in this world
    For reasons we just can’t understand for now
    But isn’t there a day of redemption coming
    Ohhh Redemption is coming

    Quickly Lord, come quickly
    Lord, come quickly

    So who am I God
    That you would raise me from the dust
    To breathe your life and your love in me
    You know that I believe”

    • Brett, Thank you for being so enthusiastic about this project. I really wish I had a recording or video of YOUR setting of “Out of the Depths.” That one really deserves a wider audience (what my website lacks in sheer numbers, it makes up for in geographic distribution). I had heard about this Steven Curtis Chapman song but hadn’t ever listened to it. Thanks for pointing me to it. It’s extraordinary to me, being able to make such beautiful art from such heartbreak. Big hugs to you.

  8. My theory for the last line on the second verse of the Wailin’ Jenny’s song is: Altars gathering dust while we bow to them….I hope this helps!

    • Thank you, Kara! Between your detective work and Carolyn’s (in an earlier comment), I think we’ve deciphered the whole song. I updated the post to include the results of your work and Carolyn’s. I am so grateful for your help!

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