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"This Little Light of Mine" is a gospel song.
Harry Dixon Loes, who studied at the Moody Bible Institute and the American Conservatory of Music, was a musical composer and teacher, who wrote or co-wrote several other gospel songs. The song has since entered the folk tradition, first being collected by John Lomax in 1939. Often thought of as a Negro spiritual, it does not, however, appear in any collection of jubilee or plantation songs from the nineteenth century.
Depending on the source, the song may take its theme from Matthew 5:16, "Let your light shine before men, that they may see your fine works and give glory to your Father who is in the heaven." Alternatively, it may refer to the words of Jesus in Luke 11:33, where he said, "No man, when he hath lighted a candle, putteth it in a secret place, neither under a bushel, but on a candlestick, that they which come in may see the light." Or, it may be based on Matthew 5:14–15, where Jesus said, "Ye are the light of the world. A city that is set on an hill cannot be hid. Neither do men light a candle and put it under a bushel, but on a candlestick; and it giveth light unto all that are in the house."
The song has also been secularised into "This Little Girl of Mine" as recorded by Ray Charles in 1956 and later The Everly Brothers. It has often been published with a set of hand movements to be used for the instruction of children.
Under the influence of Zilphia Horton, Fannie Lou Hamer, and others, it eventually became a Civil Rights anthem in the 1950s and 1960s, especially the version by Betty Fikes The Seekers recorded it for their second UK album, Hide & Seekers (also known as The Four & Only Seekers) in 1964. Over time it also became a very popular children's song, recorded and performed by the likes of Raffi in the 1980s.
Odetta and the Boys' Choir of Harlem performed the song on the Late Show with David Letterman on September 17, 2001, on the first show after Letterman resumed broadcasting, after having been off the air for several nights following the events of 9/11.