Who Wrote "This Little Light of Mine"?

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You know the song and you know it well, yet it may surprise you that "This Little Light of Mine" was not a slave spiritual before it was popularized during the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s. The real story for this American folk music classic begins with a Michigan music minister who penned over 1500 gospel songs and 3000 tunes in his career.


"This Little Light of Mine" made it into the American folk music tradition when it was found and documented by John Lomax in 1939. At Goree State Farm in Huntsville, Texas, Lomax recorded Doris McMurray singing the spiritual. The recording can still be found in the Library of Congress archives.

The song is actually attributed to Harry Dixon Loes. He was gospel songwriter and music director from Michigan who worked at the Moody Bible Institute. Loes wrote the song for children in the 20s. Though Dixon was a white man from the North, the song is often attributed (even in hymnals) as an "African-American spiritual." This is understandable because it sounds similar to other Southern spirituals of the time.

In the 1960s, the simple song became an anthem of the civil rights movement. It was adapted for this purpose by Zilphia Horton (who also taught Pete Seeger "We Shall Overcome") and other activists.


The lyrics to "This Little Light of Mine" are very simple and repetitive. This lends itself nicely to the folk tradition, making it an easy song to remember and sing along with. It's one of the first songs many children learn in Sunday school and is often passed down through generations.

Only one line in each verse changes. The verses begin with one of the following phrases which are followed by "I'm gonna let it shine"; these two lines repeat a total of three times. Each verse is finished up with "I'm gonna let it shine, let it shine, let it shine, let it shine."

  • This little light of mine
  • Everywhere I go
  • All in my house
  • Out in the dark

The first two lines above are included in Loes' original three verses. The third verse uses the phrase "Jesus gave it to me" as the repeating line.


Several popular folk artists have recorded "This Little Light of Mine" through the years. Among them are versions by Pete Seeger and Odetta.

The song can be sung in any manner you choose. It is often heard in a slow, gospel style or in a fun, upbeat version for kids. You might hear it a cappella or with a simple piano accompaniment; an electric rock band or a country twang; in four-part harmony or in a choral setting. It's also not unheard of for this simple tune to be played as an instrumental on everything from a mellow string tune to a raucous song for a group of horns.