Folk Song from African American tradition / Civil Rights Movement based on “Hold On” “Keep Your Hand on the Plow”
KEEP YOUR EYES ON THE PRIZE, HOLD ON
Hold on (Hold on)
Hold on (Hold on)
Keep your eyes on the prize, hold on
Lots of good people bound in jail, Have no money for to go their bail
The very moment we thought we were lost, The dungeon shook and the chains fell off
Freedom’s name is mighty sweet, Very soon we’re gonna meet
The very best thing that we did right, Was the day we saw the light
I”m gonna ride on the wings of sound, Take my love from town to town
“Keep Your Eyes on the Prize” is a folk song that became influential during the American Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 1960s. It is based on the traditional song, “Gospel Plow,” also known as “Hold On,” “Keep Your Hand on the Plow,” and various permutations thereof.
The earliest documented reference to the older song, “Gospel Plow,” is in Alan Lomax’s 1949 book “Our Singing Country.” The book 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 English Folk Songs from the Southern Appalachians  published in 1917, indicating that Gospel Plow dates from at least the early twentieth century. The second reference is to a 1928 book, American Negro Folk-Songs, which shows an African-American heritage for the original song.
The lyrics to the 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. The book Ain’t You Got the Right to the Tree of Life by Guy and Candie Carawan. documents songs of the Moving Star Hall and the lives of African Americans on Johns Island in the early sixties.
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.” Our Singing Country shows these lyrics were already in use in 1949 and before. Odetta used them in her 1960 Carnegie Hall appearance and recording. 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.”
Lyrics for traditional American folk songs and African-American spirituals are often changed, improvised and traded between songs by different artists and at different performances. This was and is especially true in the call and response of African American religious music. For example, Mahalia Jackson, in her 1958 performance of “Keep Your Hand on the Plow”, begins with the couplet “Mary had three links of chain, Every link bearin’ Jesus name.” Bob Dylan also sings these lyrics in his upbeat version of “Gospel Plow.” Carl Sandburg, in his 1927 book The American Songbag, attributes these lyrics to yet another song entirely, “Mary Wore Three Links of Chain.” Modern choral arrangements of this song sound entirely different from either the Eyes-Prize or Hand-Plow songs.Both Sandberg in the preface to his book and folk singer Pete Seeger in the opening remarks to his Carnegie Hall performance of “Keep Your Eyes on the Prize” note the malleability of American and African-American folk music. No one artist can be historically credited with “Keep Your Eyes on the Prize.”