Mark D. Roberts

Mark D. Roberts


The Music of True Grit: Some Fascinating History

posted by Mark D. Roberts

I recently saw the new version of True Grit. Once again, the Coen brothers have written and directed an engaging, thought-provoking, and cinematically stunning movie.

true-grit-5.jpg

But, for me, one of the most striking parts of True Grit was not its look, but its sound, specifically, its soundtrack. The composer, Carter Burwell, a frequent collaborator with the Coens, has written a soundtrack that’s based almost completely on hymn tunes, especially “Leaning on the Everlasting Arms.”

We might wonder why the Coens, who are Jewish, would choose such music for their film, and how they even knew it. Ironcially, according to Ethan Coen, they knew “Leaning on the Everlasting Arms” from another movie, The Night of the Hunter, where it is sung by an insane murderer. The Coens wanted to use music that reflected point of view of True Grit‘s protagonist, 14-year-old Mattie Ross. According to Coen, she is “an old Protestant at the age of 14.” So they picked a hymn that would have been sung by Protestants in the late 1800s, the era in which True Grit takes place.

In fact, “Leaning on the Everlasting Arms” was written by a couple of late nineteenth-century Protestants. The two men who wrote the lyrics and music for this hymn were, in fact, Presbyterians. Anthony J. Showalter was an elder in the First Presbyterian Church of Dalton, Georgia. Elisha A. Hoffman later became the pastor of Benton Harbor Presbyterian Church. In his spare time, he wrote thousands of hymns, including “I Must Tell Jesus” and “What a Wonderful Savior,” as well as “Leaning on the Everlasting.”

How these two friends came to work together on this hymn is a fascinating and touching story. Showalter was a church music teacher who taught many throughout the South to sing gospel songs. One day in 1887, he received letters from two of his students, both young men who had recently lost their wives. Showalter sought to console them with a verse from Scripture, and turned to Deuteronomy 33:27, which reads in the King James Version: ” The eternal God is your refuge, and his everlasting arms are under you.” As he read this verse, Showalter imagined the refrain of a hymn, “Leaning, leaning, save and secure from all alarms; Leaning, Leaning, leaning on the everlasting arms.”

After writing to the grieving widowers, Showalter also wrote to his friend and fellow hymn-writer, Elisha Hoffman, asking him if he could write verses for the refrain. It seems that Showalter was stuck with nothing but a chorus. In time, Hoffman wrote back with three stanzas, which Showalter put to music. The result was the now-famous hymn, “Leaning on the Everlasting Arms.”

Tomorrow, I’ll examine the lyrics of this hymn and offer a few observations on their significance.



  • Jim

    Thank you, Mark Roberts, for writing about this hymn tune from the movie True Grit. I too, recently veiwed the movie and from the very opening, I was struck and enthralled with the soundtrack. I knew instantly what tune I was hearing and delighted in listening throughout the entire score as the composer used the tune in many variations. I cannot remember watching a movie where the musical score had such a profound effect upon me. My late father was a Presbyterian Pastor and he played the piano daily as a hobby…mostly old hymn tunes. I came to love such tunes and Leaning on the Everlasting Arms is certainly one that I love and one that my father often played. Sincerly, Jim

  • Mark D. Roberts

    Thanks, Jim. What a great memory of your father!

  • Kathy

    That was great – I grew up singing that song as well as all the other “oldies”. They still play a special part of my life.

  • http://sinema7.net/2011/01/true-gritand-leaning-on-the-everlasting-arms-pondering-the-movie-and-its-score/ Dave

    Attached a post with some excellent thoughts both the use of the hymn as well as the Bible verses.

  • Leigh

    I just saw the movie yesterday. I too grew up with hymns and this is one of my favorites. Carrying the theme throughout the movie added to its impact. The version that was used by the vocalist at the the end was so different in its expression from what I am used to singing that I was captivated. It was a wonderful film.

  • Margie

    I have seen True Grit TWICE,,,and we don’t go to many movies…From the time I sat down and saw Maddie walking to the tune of “Leaning on the Everlasting Arms,” I began to cry…throughout the movie, I was totally overwhelmed w/the musical score,,,and even sang along in my heart to the music….The second time I took my sister and niece, and my sister and I SANG OUTLOUD(only a few others were sitting quite a distance from us) but truly was overwhelmed once again by the musical score…If you can accept this praise Mark Roberts for writing about this magnificent musical track and please, ifyou can, convey to Carter Burwell how majestic his music was….and would love to buy a copy of it as well. Thank you for not only blessing me but my sister and niece, and husband with me first time…I am AWED…

  • Delores

    Saw this movie yesterday, & some online research finds that others liked it & the music as well. I can’t get it out of my head today. I don’t recall seeing the original movie, altho I probably did, but am wondering if this type of music was in it? I’ve listened to clips of the soundtrack; sounds wonderful!

  • Lee

    I have to say, this song really moved me, a grown woman of the Catholic faith. It was one of those moments (that we all wait for) when watching a movie and we are moved from our seat to another plane altogether(quick other one that comes to mind is when Lyle Lovett begins singing “Stand By Your Man” at the end of “The Crying Game”). Both of my not-very-religious parents came from Protestants of great faith and I know and love most of the old hymns from my grandparents era. How I remember them, who knows (I like the Jungarian theory), but this song took me back to some small Mississippi church, hearing this shouted to the rafters and thinking (as a small child would), WOW! Thank you Coen Brothers for placing this music right where it needed to be. And not to give anything away, but the last 30 minutes of this movie had me paralyzed with my eyes on the screen and my heart singing this song.

  • jerry

    great movie, song done at end while credits running,iris dement,youngest of 14 kids born in ark.go figure.

  • Kung

    I did not grown up with hymms but I was also taken in emotionally of this motion picture and its soundtrack. The music placed me in the period even though the visual effects was key the music propelled me to the world that has been forgotten to some degree. The Coen Brothers and Carter Burwell did an awesome job and without the main theme and voice of Iris Dement!
    My heart was also singing!

  • http://sinema7.net/2011/01/true-gritand-leaning-on-the-everlasting-arms-pondering-the-movie-and-its-score/ Maureen

    I thought the score was really great as well. The backstory of a song links me to a history of faith when I sing it. Thanks for the post.
    I wondered if there was not some irony in the use of a song about leaning on Jesus in a movie in which every character is so bent of independence and the rugged individualism generally celebrated in westerns. I’ve linked my blog post if anyone is interested in this perspective.

  • http://AddaURLtothiscomment Ann

    I just saw the movie. As with any remake, the thought is that it will not measure up but this sure did. However, like many of the comments, it was the music that drew me in. I went looking for more information because I wanted to know why this music was chosen. The hymn is also from my childhood and takes me back to that same age. The soundtrack was great and the ever-changing theme was powerful. Thanks for sharing this information.

  • http://asurefoundation.org Bill

    I can’t turn my back on John Wayne and say that the “New Grit” is better, but the music of the new version is inspirational far beyond the biographical song of Glen Campbell’s song in the origional movie. I’ve been listening to the new song and soundtrack a lot lately and been really refreshed in the LORD.

    I read the book by Charles Portis several times and that is a treat for Christians seeking to find suitable reading material. It is filled with Bible references and Christian history (of that time) and opinions and theology of the Protestants of the late 1800′s.

    And Mark, I don’t mean to be a “needler,” but your quote of Duet. 33:27 might be the New King James Version; but the King James Version is so much more poetic: “The eternal God is thy refuge, and underneath are the everlasting arms . . . “

  • http://AddaURLtothiscomment Katy

    “Leaning On The Everlasting Arms” was sung by Robert Mitchum in the movie “Night of the Hunter” (1955).

  • http://AddaURLtothiscomment Irene

    It is so refreshing to learn the inner workings of making a “damn good” movie. I was surprised how good True Grit was. Not once did I compare Jeff Bridges to THE DUKE. The music gave me a different feel to the story then again my body and soul were in a different state of being. Thank you to Katy for her comment on Robert Mitchum. I would never have known. So much more to say but. . . .

  • http://None Patsy Davis

    Patsy Davis in Charlotte, N.C. I saw the movie and thought it was much better than the original movie in which John Wayne starred. Jeff Bridges does an EXCELLENT job of portraying the part that John Wayne portrayed. I wish that I had the DVD for that movie.

  • http://AddaURLtothiscomment Susan Robinson

    I cannot find who the artist is who sang Leading on the Everlasting Arms in the movie True Grit. Please advise me.

  • http://AddaURLtothiscomment Shawna

    It is Emmylou Harris. I could tell the minute I heard her beautiful, clear voice.

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