My Friend Elijah

SATB a cappella version published by Walton Music Publishing,
Catalog # WJMS1088 (to order, use HL08501621) 
SATB a cappella
SSAA/piano (ask about availabilty)
Text in English by Natalie Goldberg
Duration: 4Ĺ minutes
Difficulty rating (1-5): 3

 listen to My Friend Elijah

erformed by the University of Oregon Chamber Choir,
Sharon Paul, director

I'm really happy that Walton  published this piece. The choirs who have sung it have really enjoyed both the incredibly creative, unusual text by Natalie Goldberg and my music, which is a quasi-spiritual in the Moses Hogan vein but with a bit of gospel in the middle. In 2006, the Michigan 2006 All-State Honors Choir, directed by Sharon Hansen, really rocked this piece. And the University of Oregon Chamber Choir, directed by Sharon Paul, did likewise at the NW ACDA conference in 2010.

SATB premiere performance by The Grinnell College Singers, directed by John Rommereim, on Feb 27, 2005 in Grinnell, Iowa

SSAA/piano version premiered by Vox Caelestis Women's Chorus, directed by Paul Carey on March 5, 2005 in Oak Park, IL


I wandered into a small bookstore in Oak Park and was leafing through the poetry books and happened upon a collection of poems by Natalie Goldberg, at that time unknown to me (Natalie is also a painter and is a New Yorker transplanted to Taos, New Mexico). I was immediately attracted to this poem, which for all its seeming silliness early on, becomes more serious toward the end.

Goldberg uses "my friend Elijah" as a symbol for Jewish tradition. As an entry point she evokes the Seder tradition of leaving out food for Elijah at Passover ("my friend Elijah never came to my house to drink wine in April") but then continues on to cleverly examine all the other things, including non-kosher activities, which he wouldn't choose to do if he were to live in today's world. The poem becomes more serious as she paints the exhilarating, terrifying earthquake and storm world of a prophet, and the poem and the music climaxes when she tells us that "Elijah saw God." Truly a tour de force poem, something you aren't expecting when earlier on she talks about Oreo cookies! (The reference, for the curious, is that Oreos are a non-kosher food.)
The students at Grinnell College, where the piece was premiered, really got into serious discussions of what they thought the poem meant. I loved the fact that they discussed it in such earnestness and that it had different meanings for different people, truly the mark of a great poem, in my opinion. And you certainly have to love a poem that mentions Oreo cookies.
In setting the piece I immediately felt that the text cried out for a setting in a spiritual form, a la someone like the late, great Moses Hogan. By the time Elijah is swaying with the shadows, the music has arrived at a full tilt gospel shout. The high point musically, however, is when Elijah sees God, which I have set in an ascending, repeated way, with a fermata on the highest chord sung fff. In performance this point has been truly breathtaking to singers and audiences alike. From there Elijah and the music fade into the gentle dying light of evening after the storms have passed.
I found out through John Rommereim, the Grinnell Singers' director, that this turned out to be the the unofficial tour bus song on their Spring 2005 tour. Bits and pieces of it would be belted out at random times on the bus -- hey, we all know what touring can do to your brain!

More from some choir members:

Mr. Carey:
My Friend Elijah was a fun to sing and it brought joy to all of us in the choir. I can't count the mornings lately that I have awakened to it going through my head! The notes and words were a perfect blend and we loved it - of course none of us could keep still while singing it either! Thank you for writing it and thank you for your kind words sent to Ben Legett. You are awesome!

Alison Waite  -  Alto 2, The Wolf River Singers

Dear Paul, 

I am a soprano in the Wolf River Singers [directed by Ben Legett, website at 
and had the pleasure of performing My Friend Elijah in our concert this past weekend. I think the piece was 
the audience favorite and certainly was the singers favorite!

We had fun learning it and enjoyed every note. Thanks for writing such a great piece! 
I'm off to put on wool socks and eat some oreos! 
Sherry Thompson




(from the collection Top of my Lungs)
My friend Elijah never came to my house to drink wine in April
He never bought Oreo cookies or wool socks
Elijah saw birds crack open in the night
and field mice split the sides of mountains
My friend Elijah never got mail, was overweight
or smelled perfume silk or roses
Oh Elijah swayed with shadows
heard the voice where no voice was
saw the fire where it was cool and calm
and shattered in earthquakes where no earthquakes slept
My friend Elijah didnít read the Torah or milk a cow
My friend Elijah bought no salt and never shopped on Saturday
Elijah saw God and came home quiet and still
after evening storms.



Click to See pdf Score
   (partial score of
   SATB version)

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