Title: Little David Play on Your Harp
Artist: Ruth Starr Rose
Size: 11.9″ x 16″
Credit: Gift of the Harmon Foundation
Description: The image revolves around a man playing a guitar. He is looking up at the sky with his mouth open as if he is singing. His left foot is resting on the chest of a large man who is laid out on the ground with his arms outstretched and eyes closed as if he has been knocked out. To the guitar man’s left are five lambs, two of them behind him and three to his side coming around the man playing guitar. In the background on the left side, three more men, dressed in police uniforms holding what may be batons, are slinking off into the darkness with smokestacks in the far background. On the right side, in the background is a house that looks as though it may be in a rural area. Above the man with the guitar are three child heads with wings where their torsos would be, with their mouths open as if they are singing with the man.
“Little David Play on Your Harp” is an African American spiritual based on the story of David and Goliath in 1 Samuel 17. The song directly references this story in the second verse, which Ruth Starr Rose has seemingly illustrated:
“Little David was a shepherd boy,
He killed Goliath and shouted for joy”
In 1 Samuel 17, Goliath was the champion of the Philistines who had prepared themselves to go to war with the Israelites. He challenged the Israelites, demanding they choose a man to come down to attempt to kill him, alleging that if the Israelites managed to defeat him, they would become their servants, but if he defeated the man they’d selected, they would become the Philistines’ servants. David was the youngest of eight sons and tended after his father’s sheep while the three eldest sons had gone off to fight against the Philistines.
One day, under orders from his father, David leaves the sheep with another shepherd and takes his brothers some food to check in on them. When he gets there, he sees Goliath and hears the Israelites talking about all the things that the king would give them if someone killed Goliath. His brothers overhear him and get angry that he had supposedly left the sheep just to come and see the battle, which was not true. Eventually, David is summoned by the commander of the Israelite army and David tells him that he’ll take care of Goliath. Saul, the commander, tells him that it’s impossible because David is simply a young man who tends sheep while Goliath is someone who has been fighting his entire life.
David insists that this would be no different than all the times that he had protected his flock of sheep from bears or lions; in this case, the bear or lion is Goliath and the sheep are the army of God. Saul gives David permission and David decides against wearing armor because it wasn’t something he was used to. Instead, he took five smooth stones from a stream and intended on fighting him with a sling. Goliath prepares to attack David as David informs Goliath that he was going to fight him in the name of the Lord. As the two move towards one another to attack, David pulls a stone out and uses his sling to shoot the stone directly into Goliath’s forehead. As soon as Goliath was down, David took Goliath’s sword and cut his head from his body, putting an end to him forever.
Fisk University Male Quartette. “Little David Play on Your Harp.” Internet Archive, 1920. https://archive.org/details/78_little-david-play-on-your-harp_fisk-university-male-quartette-fisk-university-singe_gbia0000404b