31 thoughts on “‘Passing Through’ (1948): Song of Political Engagement – Tikun Olam תיקון עולם إصلاح العالم
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  1. Hi, Richard Blakeslee is my Dad so of course I grew up with Passing Through and loved to watch its recording history. Just to set the record straight, the Abraham Lincoln verse was not written by my Dad, which may explain why it wasn’t on the Leonard Cohen version. Also, the version my Dad wrote had “Men will suffer men will fight, die for what they think is right”, not die for what is right. An important distinction and a change in the lyrics that bothered my Dad because of course it makes no sense to think there is always one “right” when it comes to war.

    1. Dear Sarah Blakeslee:

      I am a small, independent book-publisher based in Paris, France.

      As part of a book, I wish to publish your dad’s lyric Passing Through as it appeared originally. [I have just purchased 1953’s Lift Every Voice, and I see that even there the lyric is incorrectly reproduced.] For that purpose, I am ready to properly acquire the permission to reproduce the song’s lyric.

      To accomplish this, I am afraid I might need your help. First, because I cannot seem to locate a faithful reproduction of the initial lyric. Second, because I do not know which music-publishing entity administers the copyright associated with the Passing Through song.

      In short, I would be honored to benefit from your help in this endeavor. Conversely, without your help, I doubt I will manage to pull it off.

      Thank you very in advance for your kind response.

      Yours Respectfully,


    2. Sarah
      Sorry for this contact out of the blue but I am trying to locate your brother, also named Richard, for information on a project he worked on at Cal State back in the late 1960’s. Can you assist at all ?

  2. Sarah: I am very touched that you commented on my post. Thanks for doing so. As you know, your dad provided the world with a great gift when he wrote “Passing Through.”

    One of the things I was most concerned of in writing this post was that I knew almost nothing about your father. Someone wrote me with the link to his obit in the UofC alumni mag. This provided some biolgraphical material. But if there’s anything else relevant to my post about your dad which you’d like me to add–or some place online that has such information–pls. let me know.

    Do you know how the Lincoln verse came into existence? I like it, though it definitely has a different lyric character than the other verses he DID write..

    Yes, that lyric change about what is “right” does make the verse quite different & I understand why your dad was so concerned about it (especially in light of the certitude our current pres. shows about all issues he views as “right”).

  3. Passing through had at least one more verse, which seems to have gone down the memory hole. It referred to an incident during World War II, when a troop transport, the Dorchester was sunk by a German submariine:

    I was aboard the Dorchester
    The night that she went down
    And four chaplains gave their life-belts to the crew.
    Arm in arm on bended knee
    They prayed for you and me
    We’re all brothers and we’re only passing through.

    The act was one of great gallantry; the chaplains — Catholic, Protestant, and Jewish, if memory serves — went down with the ship.

    They were subsequently memorialized with a commemorative stamp.

    I first heard the verse in the 1950s when the song was sung by a folk singer who visited my high school. It is a shame it has been lost.

    1. Can someone please tell me in which year Cisco Houston recorded Passing Through for Folkways Records? Thank you very much in advance!

    2. I learned a slightly different version of that verse, but it was my favorite. Here’s how my mother sang it:

      I was on the deck of the Dorchester that night
      When the chaplains gave their life-belts to the crew
      And they knelt on bended knee, prayed for all eternity
      For their brothers who were only passing through

  4. This song was also recorded by the folk group The Highwaymen and friends on their album ‘Hootenanny with the Highwaymen.” This was a folk group of the early 1960’s, most famous for their version of “Michael (Row the Boat Ashore),” not the Waylon Jennings/Willie Nelson/Johnny Cash/Kris Kristofferson collaboration. Their version contains the incorrect lyric “die for what is right.” You can find the album on-line but not on CD.

  5. One of our artists, Jim McGrath, has recorded a version of Passing Through with additional lyrics. We would like to arrange for proper mechanical rights as well as identify the publisher for the original. Can anyone here help?


  6. Back in `66, I heard singer and guitarist, Betsy Bick sing,
    “I heard Ghandi speak one night, I said man we`ve got to fight,
    He said love is the weapon we must use,
    It is love that we must choose so none will ever lose,
    Were all brothers, and were only passing through.”

  7. Kathy Sindin and I used to sing Passing Through in the sixties at Clarkstown Junior High.

    Recently I recalled it and started singing it again. It is a great song and I will be using it as the theme song for The Freedom Show. Thanks for researching this great song and posting the songwriter and other Passing Through lore.

    1. So much I didn’t know about Kathy Sindin. Perhaps so much we didn’t know about each other. High school was a pretty atomizing experience. Nor did I know this song then. Not till Leonard Cohen recorded it.

      I haven’t had any contact with anyone from Clarkstown HS for years. How are you?

  8. i like this part:
    I saw Adam leave the Garden with an apple in his hand,
    I said “Now you’re out, what are you going to do?”
    “Plant some crops and pray for rain, maybe raise a little cane.
    I’m an orphan now, and I’m only passing through.”
    good post Thanks

  9. I remember the song from campfire sing-alongs in the 1960s. With the years passing, much has happened and the song still sings so well! But the FDR verse never sounded like FDR, and the world of campfire song has moved away from gender-specific language. So here are some verses that weren’t posted above that reflect those thoughts.

    I was at Franklin Roosevelt’s side just a awhile before he died
    He said “Freedom must come out of World War II
    Free for speech and free for prayer. Free from want and free from fear.
    We need freedom for we’re only passing through”

    Gandhi spoke to me one night, he said “Yes, we have to fight,
    but love and trust are the weapons we must use
    Trust in your humanity, be the world you want to see
    Walk together for we’re only passing through”

    I was with Nelson Mandela in his Robben Island cell
    How do you not hate them for what they’ve done to you?
    He said “If you want the hate to end, make your enemy your friend
    We’ve so little time and we’re just passing through.”

  10. And here’s another verse I’ve heard from a Jewish socialist summer camp

    I stood on Herzl’s balcony with Basel there below
    “Do you think your vision ever will come true?”
    “If we only have the will, every dream we can fulfill
    We’re all dreamers and we’re only passing through.”

  11. I think that the line in Adam leaving the garden should be spelled ‘maybe raise a little Cain’, which would refer both to his son and to the idea of raising Hell thereby being a pun.

  12. Another verse I have heard

    I sat to chat with Jefferson as he sat down to write
    “Tell me which rights are self-evident to you?”
    “Life and liberty, I guess, and pursuit of happiness
    We’ve so little time and we’re just passing through”

    And another take on the Lincoln verse

    I was speakin’ with Abe Lincoln on the train to Gettysburg
    “How do we heal a nation torn in two?”
    “Show no malice when they fall
    Just have charity to all
    we’re all brothers and we’re only passing through”

  13. I always thought that the verse “maybe raise a little cane” should read “maybe raise a little Cain”.
    Can someone shed light on this?

  14. I heard the Four Chaplains verse this way:

    I was standing on the deck of the Dorchester that night
    When four chaplains gave their lifebelts to the crew.
    Arm in arm, on bended knee
    They embraced eternity
    But their prayers were for their brothers passing through.

  15. Thank you all for the comments on this song that has haunted me since my childhood in the late 40s and early 50s. Has anyone seen a verse about Martin Luther King Jr.?

    1. I saw the fire hoses spraying Martin Luther King
      Why don’t you hit them back when they hit you?
      “Do not judge them by their skin, but by the character within
      We’re together and we’re only passing through”

  16. Wonderful, illuminating commentary and clarifications; special thanks to Ms. Blakeslee. I remember the song from the Folk Revival (a.k.a. the Great Folk Scare of the ’60’s) and learning an accurate version in an early number of Sing Out magazine (I first heard a performance by Almanac Singers and Weavers’ principal Lee Hays, and a few times by Pete Seeger). Now, last year, rather long in the tooth, I sang a verse as a guest in a hipster bar in Lower Manhattan, so it lives on…the song has a persuasive power and touches the heart. The Lincoln verse demonstrates awkward prosody–I’ve never heard it before, and I’m not surprised it’s an add-on. Passing Through has become a true folk song (whatever that means!), and of course is fair game for modifications and additions, but the original version has an arc and a “just right” length. Piling on (I revere Nelson Mandela, but…) somehow destabilizes the effect. As a professional songwriter, it does bug me the way attribution (especially in the Internet) so often goes to the artist/performer rather than the writer, and I’m sure Leonard Cohen would feel the same way. This even happens in websites devoted to lyrics, and often in Pandora. Disgraceful IMHO. I’m going to include the song in a house concert in a couple weeks, where a lot of the crowd are American Buddhists of one sort or the other…my guess is that Leonard appreciated the core theme of transience as well as the political message.

  17. regarding the quesion of Martin L. Kings verses, I have been singing the following at festivals the last dozen or so years:

    I sat on the edge of my chair when that bullet pierced the air
    Taking Bobby, John, & Martin Luther King
    We’ve seen Fear, War and Shame. We feel hope that we can change
    this road we travel, as we’re…. passing thru
    ….Last Verse, Art Crummer,2002

  18. I seem to remember a different verse to Passing Through for Martin Luther King – this one doesn’t ring a bell and wasn’t there one about Kennedy too? Thanks for the heads up on Gandhi verse which I remember and the Lincoln Verse but the MLK one is not one I recognize – I thought there was a different one …..we sang this a Quaker Boarding School (Olney) in Ohio back in the early 60s

  19. When I was in summer camp in a small town in Missouri back in the early 70’s, the camp director who played a great banjo and was a huge Pete Seeger fan would lead us in this song, Here are some lyrics that I have not seen posted anywhere: (not 100% sure of any of these).

    For Dorchester it started: I stood on that burning deck of the Dorchester that night… (then the rest is the same)

    For MLK:
    On a Memphis street I saw a great leader of men fall
    Will freedom end now that his life is through
    Dr Martin Luther King was a man who had a dream:
    We’re all brothers and we’re only passing through

    for JFK:
    I saw John F Kennedy shot on that Dallas thoroughfare
    In a fight for all mankind he found his truth
    He fought for freedom, liberty, every man’s equality
    We’re all brothers and we’re only passing through

  20. Thanks to all for these comments and lyrics added along the way. This song was one of the favorites of my high school social group (the Jamaica High School Folk Song Club, 1961). I’m so glad to hear, Sarah, that the original lyric was “die for what they think is right,” which is how we decided to sing it. We thought we invented the change, but our intent was the same as what you say was important to your dad.

  21. This is a wonderful page to stumble upon! I started singing this song in the late 70’s and some friends and I recorded an unreleased cassette and we wrote new verses to it also. I also worked at Circle Pines Summer Camp in the late 80’s and brought this to their “After Lunch Singing” repertoire.
    Here were our new verses…

    I saw Harriet Tubman following that
    north star in the night.
    I said “Where’s that promised land you hope to
    lead us to?”
    She said “Someday we’ll be there,
    if we have strength enough to share.
    “We’re all sisters and we’re only passing through.”

    I saw Emma Goldman thrown in jail for
    helping the oppressed.
    She said “We won’t stop no matter what they
    For they know as well as me,
    every person must be free.
    “We’re all sisters and we’re only passing through.”

    When Woody Guthrie sang the hills and
    mountains freely rang,
    Sounding “This land was made for me and
    ”He said “There ain’t no need to grieve,
    if you just live what you believe.
    “We’re all brothers and we’re only passing through.

    ”I saw Martin Luther King take a
    stand in Alabam’.
    He said “I have a dream that must come
    “Stop your hatred, stop your war;
    in your love there’s so much more.
    “We’re all brothers and we’re only passing through.”

    Feel free to sing them if you like

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