Tuesday, May 19, 2020

Tacky Hymns 58

Still more on Let All the People Praise You: A Songbook (Northwestern Publishing House, 1999), the first of two supplements to the Wisconsin Ev. Luth. Synod's 1993 pew hymnal Christian Worship: A Lutheran Hymnal. In order to speed things up and avoid tedious repetition, I'm going to try to limit this segment to identifying what previously discussed strain of Tackiness on Holy Ground each song represents and go into detail only if there's something really distinctive to poke fun at. All explanations and disclaimers from the previous two (plus) posts on this thread apply, including the fact that the numbers preceding each song title are actual page numbers. And so, onward!

(76-78) Friends (first line: "Packing up the dreams God planted") is a Michael W. Smith/Deborah D. Smith CoWo song that has probably jerked tears out of the closing worship program of many a Christian youth rally. It's definitely one of those pieces that keeps cigarette lighters in production after so many people have quit smoking. You know which one I mean, with the chorus that starts "And friends are friends forever if the Lord's the Lord of them," etc. I'm having trouble making out just what real, spiritual value it delivers – but that may be my BS detector going off, preventing me from making it to the end of a stanza with any memory of how it began.

(79) fills half a page with a Chinese translation (spelled, I gather, according to someone's personal notion of a phonetic rendering) of "Jesus loves me." No music included. The need for this is desperately apparent: they had nothing else to put on this page.

(80-81) From him all blessings flow (first line: "Behind the storm, the howling wind") is a song by Robert Roesch whose two stanzas are sung to a tune that sounds hymny, bleeding into a refrain with pop-song rhythms and supported by piano figuration that varies from not-very-interesting to too-hard-for-Grandma-Smurf. The burden of its sentiments is, don't be afraid of the storm because "a smiling countenance is there to guard you through the night" and "a grace and love will see you through," cue title lyric. The refrain concludes, "So, let his love shine in!" Do you think that's a hymn? Because "a smiling countenance" and "a grace and love" are as close as it gets to mentioning Jesus.

(82-83) Gathered 'round your table is a Christmas communion hymn by Edith Clarkson that I don't think I've met before. It's simple, eloquent, profound – in a word, wonderful. I'm only mentioning it now so you won't think two pages stuck together as I was flipping through LAPPY. It's a hymn that outclasses everything around it by several orders of magnitude. Remind me to bring this song up if ever my church choir rehearses again!

(84-85) Give thanks (with a grateful heart) is one whose praises I have already sung.

(86) Glorify thy name (first line: "Father, we love you; we worship and adore you") is a Trinitarian doxology song by Donna Adkins, three-quarters of which consists of full or partial repeats of "Glorify thy name in all the earth." The only difference between the stanzas is the first word of each, which changes from "Father" to "Jesus" and finally "Spirit." I'm not against doing that kind of thing now and then, but I think we'd get more out of "God the Father, be our stay."

(87-89) Go (ye therefore and teach all nations) is a "Great Commission" song whose first and third stanza are identical, and the middle stanza inserts "If you love me, really love me, feed my sheep" into Matthew 28:19-20, while (for some reason) deleting the bit about "teaching them to observe all things whatsoever I have commanded you." A significant portion of the song is devoted to repetition of the word "go," which achieves two effects – first, accenting the Law component of the Great Commission and, second, making the singer(s) sound like a lowing herd of cattle.

(90) Go down, Moses (first line: "When Israel was in Egypt's land") is a four-stanza African American spiritual that, like "Deep River," I've only publicly sung as part of the chorus in a production of Tippett's A Child of Our Time. Significant cultural artifact, etc., etc., but now that slavery (and, apropos Tippett, the Holocaust) are behind us, what does it give us today as singing worshipers? Three stanzas that slowly sketch out a minimalistic version of the Exodus story, followed by the application, "Oh, let us all from bondage flee ... And let us all in Christ be free." Is that worth approximately 10 minutes of the worship hour?

(91) Go into the world (first line: "Go ye, go ye into the world") is a Natalie Sleeth ditty, here set as a treble-bass duet (with guitar chords). Its refrain is a stripped-down version of Matthew 28:19-20 (even more stripped than "Go"); its single stanza, set in the relative minor key, paraphrases a couple of Jesus' "I am" sayings from the gospel of John in a way that could be seen as stressing their Law application: "I am the vine; you are the branches, ever the fruit to bear. I am the light, you the reflection everywhere." It's a cute kiddie piece with no harm in it, I suppose. But outside the youth program, what purpose does it serve in the congregation's worship?

(92) God be in my head is a one-stanza invocation of "God" (it doesn't identify him further) to be in my head/understanding, eyes/looking, mouth/speaking, heart/thinking and death/departing. It's paired with a tune called DAVID by George W. Briggs, which has an interesting, Renaissance-ish ring to it. It reminds me of a bit from St. Patrick's Breastplate, only without a confession of faith that specifies what God it is invoking and, if you're going to be a niggler (like I am), no mention of means by which God might come to be in me, which is almost tantamount to suggesting no means are necessary. It calls to mind a principle I learned from my vicarage bishop: If you don't direct people to seek God in word and sacrament, they will seek him elsewhere.

(93) God loves me dearly, and turn the page, because saying anything mean about it would be like kicking a puppy. Though, you have to admit, it's a little kids' song, which just adds to my mixed up impressions about the whole purpose of this book.

(94-95) God rest you merry, gentlemen is that English carol (setting by John Stainer!) which has no harm in it, as such, but I've always thought of it as more a caroling-party thing, or a sing-at-home-around-the-tree thing, or a primary-school-winter-concert thing, than a hymn to sing in church instead of one that meditates more deeply on what the story, catchily but sketchily narrated in this song, means for us.

(96-97) God, whose giving knows no ending is a three-stanza stewardship hymn by Robert L. Edwards, set to the early Americana melody BEACH SPRING. Not that I see any cause of death in it, I just can't help pointing out that the stanza-by-stanza outline of the hymn literally breaks down to "time, talent and treasure," which is just precious.

(98-99) God will take care of you (first line: "Be not dismayed whate'er betide") is an old-timey consolation hymn by the married words-and-music team of Civilla and Walter Stillman Martin. Here one finds oneself in the stylistic realm of Arthur Sullivan or Robert Lowry, with a slow harmonic rhythm, passing chromaticism, part-songy texture and relentless repetition of the same catch-phrase. Breathing such rarified poetic and musical air makes me feel short of breath. It's all very well if you want your church to be a time capsule enshrining bland, late 19th-early 20th century Baptist-cum-Disciples of Christ spirituality. But when I'm in a repristinating mood, I aim elsewhere.

(100-101) Great is the Lord is another Michael W. & Deborah D. Smith piece – that CoWo number you've surely heard, distinctive for the refrain in which the word "Great" is twice held for 10 beats before resolving to "is the Lord" or "are you, Lord." It's also one of those hymns where the first stanza is repeated twice before moving on to the third stanza, which in this case only differs by the person of the verbs and pronouns ("Great is the" vs. "Great are you"; "now lift up your" vs. "I lift up my"; etc.). So, it boils down to a rather small amount of distinctive content, kept around for a prolonged engagement. I'd also add that it's a solo number, but you'll probably respond that your congregation sings it beautifully, to which I can only reply, "That's why I don't belong to it."

(102-103) He is born, the child divine is a French Christmas carol, whose tune I've actually used for one of my own hymns. In addition to what I said about "God rest you merry," I would add that it's not as well-known in these parts, so it will probably belong (at least for a while) to a rehearsed ensemble. Also, there may be some titters at the refrain's suggestion to "play the oboe, sound the bagpipes." In contrast to "God rest ye," however, it does hint at some application to us (albeit an "us" understood in character as Old Testament believers), by recalling that we "have awaited this joyous time" and calls on the infant King of all to "reign in ev'ry human heart." So it might be argued, mildly, that there's more in it for us as a singing congregation.

(104-105) He is exalted is a CoWo praise song by Twila Paris (with guitar chords; though I've only intermittently remembered to point this out). In this book, at least, it has only one stanza and requires skill and rehearsal, probably involving a soloist.

(106-107) He is the way, he is the truth, he is the life (first line: "God sent his Son to be our Savior") is a folk-styled hymn (with guitar chords) by Otis Skillings. Its five stanzas use repetition to prolong the payout of a small amount of material. I'm confident that we can find hymns that give us more to chew on in the same amount of time.

(108-109) He never said a mumbalin' word (first line: "They crucified my Lord") is one that I've already mumbled about.

(110) He walks among the golden lamps is an apocalyptic depiction of Christ written by modern(istic) hymn writer Timothy Dudley-Smith, set to a gorgeous modern tune called REVELATION by Robert LeBlanc. I think hearing it performed well would be a memorable experience. Apart from what I said a few posts back when I commiserated with David Hurd and Jane Marshall about their attractive and artistic compositions and their chances of touching the heart-strings of Uncle Shmedly, Grandma Smurf and their crowd, I just wish that T.D.S. delivered a little more application with his beautiful, biblical imagery – like, making more explicit what this means for us, or asking the Christ thus depicted for something.

(111) He's got the whole world in his hands is that spiritual which I remember learning when my Lutheran parents sent me to a Baptist VBS when I was not yet 6 years old. That's also where I learned the song "The B-I-B-L-E." Would you believe me if I told you that I felt super uncomfortable during that whole experience? Little Lutheran kindergartner that I was, I apparently sensed that the kind of church that sang stuff like this isn't where I belong. And yet, WELS grown-ups didn't sense that when they included it in this book. So what, you say. Look at it on its merits, you say. All right. On its merits, it doesn't give us anything except "He's got the whole world in his hands," and by tacit consent we understand "He" to mean God or Jesus when for all you know, it could mean Whitey. It drives this point home by repetition over four regular-size stanzas, varied only by additional examples of what might be meant by "the whole world" – weather phenomena, the little bitty baby, you and me brother. By the end, it seems to be giving us less to think about than at the beginning. And that was never much.

(112-113) Here he comes is a CoWo return-of-Jesus song by David Morstad (with guitar chords). The rhythms are not consistent with congregational singing. Sight-reading it, I pick up on something that reminds me of a Louis Jordan song. I suppose if I say that I think the lyrics lack a certain class, you'll call me a classist (or, perhaps worse, a classicist), but I do think the art forms we use in worship should reflect the highest standards, and these are pretty low. Again (I've picked this nit before), the word "jubilee" in a religious context doesn't mean what Morstad apparently thinks it means.

(114-116) His eye is on the sparrow (first line: "Why should I feel discouraged?") is again by Civilla Martin, with a tune evidently written for it by Charles Gabriel. Rather than repeat most of what I said about "God will take care of you," I'll simply add that the proportions of this piece are out of whack, mainly due to an entirely unnecessary refrain.

(117) is just the German translation of "Jesus loves me," without music, but with the helpful addition of somebody's notion of a phonetic spelling of the German text. "Yah, Yay-soos leebt mik! Dee Bee-behl zahgt meer dees." I feel physical pain reading that. Anyhow, this terribly useful ditty is only here in lieu of "THIS PAGE HAS BEEN INTENTIONALLY LEFT BLANK."

(118-119) His name is Wonderful is a two-page spread by Audrey Mieir of which you can judge how much noteworthy content it delivers by observing that, in that space, it says "His name is Wonderful" five times and "Jesus, my Lord" three times. The other lines deliver a few other names for Jesus, adding the following application to our Christian lives: "Bow down before him; Love and adore him." I would call this the start of something worth putting in a hymn-book, but I tremble to think how long the finished project would be.

(120-121) Holy, holy, holy is an English translation, included with the original Spanish, of a paraphrase of the Sanctus from the Communion liturgy, set to a Spanish traditional tune. It's all very nice, although as usual, I snicker at the assumption that any objective is served by including the Spanish text in a book that will surely only see use in an anglophone context.

(122-124) How excellent is your name is a CoWo praise song by Dick and Melodie Tunney and Paul Smith. In spite of some dramatic harmonic twists and pop-song rhythm that'll throw off a congregation that attempts to sing it (except a congregation sufficiently steeped in this kind of thing that I don't want anything to do with it), it also has a slow harmonic rhythm and a not particularly interesting tune. Lyrics-wise, it has pros and cons. It talks about the dead in Christ rising at the end of the age, which is good. But the lyric "Your children raise a perfect praise while enemies hold their tongue" has yet to be realized in our fallen world.

(124-125) How majestic is your name is a well-known CoWo song by Michael W. Smith, who sure made a splash in WELS circles with this book. The youngster I mentioned in my notes on "As the deer?" He does this song, too. Prolonged by repeat signs, it's just a paraphrase of Psalm 8:9 (or the first half of Psalm 8:1), with a "we magnify your name" and a couple phrases cherry-picked from Isaiah 9:6 thrown in to fill the ticket. If I searched for a thousand years, I would probably never find a hymn whose popularity is farther out of proportion to the meaning that it gives us.

(126-127) I am thine, O Lord is a Fanny Crosby hymn with music by W.H. Doane. So, again, it's a sentimental, old-timey number – can't you hear the flowered-hat-wearing old ladies sliding between the high notes at "Draw me nearer"? – that could almost come across as a profession of romantic love toward the Lord. "I long to rise in the arms of faith and be closer drawn to thee" (stanza 1). "Let ... my will be lost in thine" (st. 2). Oh, the delight of the hour of prayer when "with thee, my God, I commune as friend with friend" (st. 3). Sure, the sacrifice of Jesus is in the picture ("the cross where thou hast died ... thy precious, bleeding side"). But that hint my vicarage bishop dropped? (See "God be in my head.") It applies.

(128-130) I bind unto myself today is C.F. Alexander's paraphrase of St. Patrick's Breastplate, set to the traditional Irish tune by that name. Who am I to quibble about it? I pressured my church's choir into singing it the Sunday nearest to St. Patrick's day this year, in spite of the fact that some of them grumbled about it being weird and new. Also, I'm aware that some people find the phrasing "bind unto myself" legalistic, neither knowing nor caring that it's a creedal formula (i.e. a confession of faith). In spite of the fact that St. Patrick famously had difficulty with the doctrine of the Trinity, this hymn makes every effort to get it right, and gets the means of grace in there too. The tacky bit, which I have to admit, is that's tricky to sing (especially with stanza 1 being shorter than 2-3) and might have better chances with a rehearsed group, especially one that doesn't grumble when they're given good material to work with.

(131) is, again without music, "Jesus loves me" in Apache. Four stanzas, which is more than we saw in Spanish, Chinese or German. Also, it includes a pronunciation guide, which may not be very helpful considering that the Apache language contains sounds that don't exist in English. That L with a slash? I think it's the sound represented in Welsh by a double-L. Which I don't know how to make. FYI, this book also includes Hmong, Japanese and Tonga versions of this song. And as always, it seems to be on this page because the editors needed something to put there.

(132-133) I don't feel no ways tired is a gospel song for choir and soloist by Curtis Burrell. Don't take my word for it. The verses are marked to be sung by the soloist, while the backup singers repeat a portion of the rhythmically challenging refrain. It's a complaint song, similar to certain psalms – "I've been sick, in trouble, friendless, lonely ... but I don't believe that God would bring me this far just to leave me." At one point, the soloist melts down and cries, "Please don't leave me, don't leave me, Jesus! Don't leave me, don't leave me, Lord!" There are uses for this kind of prayer. But it's a bit ridiculous to expect the average U.S. Lutheran congregation to use this one. Also, not to be Freddy Faultfinder again, but I believe the F-natural in the right-hand part at the beginning of the final ending is a misprint – which, again, survives into the book's fifth printing in 2010.

(134-135) I lift my eyes to the quiet hills is another Timothy Dudley-Smith opus, loosely paraphrased from Psalm 121, with a pretty little piece of pianistic melody by Michael Baughen and Elisabeth Crocker. To the tune I have the same objection as I previously had with one by Carl Schalk – that it tries a little too much to sound like an easy-listening pop song to really hold it down on the page of a hymnal – with the exception that I, personally, don't like this tune quite as much. As for the words ... well, I've never been able to put into words exactly what makes me uneasy about T.D.S. One of my former pastors had a word for it (I think it was something like "postmodern"). I think it's a nice text, but I think the original Psalm has a sharper flavor.

(136) I love you, Lord is a one-stanza opening-of-worship song by Laurie Klein in something of a CoWo style (with guitar chords). It's a little bland, I think. I'm all for asking the Lord to let our praise be a "sweet, sweet sound in (His) ear," but what would really turn up the temperature, I think, would be a prayer asking him to tune our ears to take joy in His word.

(137) I need thee every hour is one that I've discussed before.

(138-139) I shall not be in want is a Spanish paraphrase of Psalm 23, in three stanzas translated by Gracia Grindal, and set to a tune with a very marked Spanish dance rhythm that I actually found difficult to play. It would take practice, for sure – maybe also for the group (or soloist) that sings it. Grandma Smurf, who arrives 30 minutes before the service to mark the pages of the hymns listed in the program, is going to muff it hideously. She might not even notice.

(140) is the original Spanish version of "I shall not be in want." The pagination is awkward, because (for one thing) there's a page turn between these words and the music it goes to, and (for another) because it forces a page turn in the middle of ...

(141-142) I want to walk as a child of the light, about which I have already commented.

(143-145) I will call upon the Lord is a CoWo duet, or tune with descant, with uninspiring piano accompaniment (but, amazingly, no guitar chords). All this and a three-page-long paraphrase, with repeats, of just two verses from Psalm 18 (3 and 46, to be precise), are all by Michael O'Shields. At least it's an accurate paraphrase of that much. But having to clench my teeth and play along (as a church choir accompanist) with stuff like this is one of the afflictions I bear for my sins.

(146-147) I will celebrate is a CoWo praise song by Linda Duvall that promises to "sing unto the Lord ... a new song" but that, other than repeating that intention and a bunch of Hallelujahs, doesn't. At least, not as far as the lyrics go. The musical setting's minor-key stylings combine with pop rhythms, guitar chords and a certain "Havah Nagila" sensibility to make it fun to hum through. But that just makes it kind of the Hostess Twinkie of hymns – fun to consume but offering no real nutritional value.

(148-149) I will sing of the mercies is a CoWo paraphrase of Psalm 89. Verse 1. And that's it. For two pages, plus a repeat of the whole first page. This isn't the first example, but for the moment let's call it Exhibit 1 in a case I could make at great length: Once you start taking a serious look at exactly what a diet of CoWo is feeding you, it doesn't take long to discover that their idea of a paraphrase (psalm or whatever) is pretty light on the content, sometimes not even making it all the way through one verse. I'd sooner go for a Calvinist psalter's metrical paraphrases of entire psalms. When they (CoWo songwriters) stray off the letter of the text and start to delve into free-form devotional poetry, they compare even more unfavorably to the Lutheran hymns that richly teach, confess, meditate on and apply God's teachings.

All right, that's enough for now. More of this caliber of hymnody in one go can't be good for me, spiritually or mentally. But good can come out of this study – like a renewed impetus to produce good-quality, original hymns, of which I haven't written any in more than a year. Perhaps someone reading this will hear a similar inward call to write. If you do, I hope you take the task seriously. God bless!

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