Saturday, May 30, 2020

Tacky Hymns 63

Still more on the 1999 Wisconsin Synod hymnal supplement, Let All the People Praise You: A Songbook. See the previous seven posts under "Tacky Hymns" for background info. We resume with ...

(240-241) Praise the Lord who reigns above is a praise hymn by Charles Wesley, a highly prolific hymn writer and brother of Methodism founder John Wesley who is already pretty well represented in the Lutheran hymnals of my acquaintance. It's a pretty decent piece, and I suppose it goes to show something about the tastefulness of this collection of songs in the context of Lutheran worship when I can say (yea, even I) that a song by one of the early leaders of Methodism is one of the best handful of examples in the book. If you like the kind of Psalms that enlists a variety of musical instruments to join the Lord's praises, you'll especially like stanza 2. Songs focused on praise aren't a bad thing in and of themselves, even though I think hymns that probe deeper into matters of the faith should predominate. This is one that at least makes the act of praising interesting by giving reasons and adding beautiful verse, rich with imagery and biblical references, and goes down easily without repeating the same five words 30 times.

(242-244) Praise the Lord with the sound of trumpet, however, is a long kids' choir or Sunday School song by Natalie Sleeth that I was made to sing it with my classmates when I was little-ish, and that approaches the Psalm paraphrase-scented praise song concept in a repetitive way that becomes tedious somewhere in the course of two long stanzas. It's basically a list of instruments with which, and of times and places in which, to "praise the Lord" – repeating that three-word phrase 24 times – without actually mentioning any reasons to praise him. So, for all its cheerful musical effect, it's basically all law.

(245) People need the Lord is a little CoWo ditty by Phil McHugh and Greg Nelson, with music by David Allen, that in spite of being a product of three men's creativity, consists 5/8 of the phrase "People need the Lord" to which the remaining 3/8 adds only "At the end of broken dreams he's the open door" and the final plea, "When will we realize (people need the Lord)?" As hard as I strain, I can't figure out how or why this adds up to a hymn.

(246-247) Praise the Spirit in creation is by Michael Hewlett, set to David Hurd's tune JULION. Hurd's arrangement puts it very definitely in the category of a sacred art song or choir anthem, dependent in part on a four-bar piano tag being played before each verse and at the very end. I think it might be possible to re-arrange the music more into the form of a congregational hymn. As for Hewlett's attractive four-stanza poem about the Holy Spirit, I think deeper discussion is called for before deciding whether it belongs in a Lutheran songbook. Stanza 2, for example, says the Spirit "by a still small voice conveys God's will to those who listen" (if you'll pardon me for reversing the order of the last two lines to make what they say stand out more clearly). I think this could be understood to suggest that we should listen in the quiet (say, of our hearts) for a private revelation of the Holy Spirit. Was that Hewlett's intent? I dunno. The fourth stanza asks the Spirit to "fire our hearts and clear our sight (till we) set the world alight," which sounds like a great punchline for a synodical evangelism campaign but never more than vaguely hints at the means by which the Spirit is pledged to do this. My vicarage bishop's dictum applies; those who have been following along in my critique of LAPPY will know what I mean.

(248-249) Psalm 91 (first line: "The shelter of the love of God") is a 1970s paraphrase with words and music by Joyce Freud, who does a passable musical impression of Robert Lowry, only without some of his tackier harmonic touches. Its paraphrase is all right as far as that goes. But, of course, its three stanzas (plus refrain) only cover selected verses of the psalm, and some of the verses it omits are really wonderful. My biggest concern, however, is the phrase from the refrain which says that God shelters me "because I come to him in love," etc., which sounds like decisionism.

(250-251) A purple robe (a crown of thorn) is a Timothy Dudley-Smith number set to music by David Wilson (with guitar chords). It's a pretty good Passion of Christ hymn, but I think the music is a bit of the "bonfire ballad" persuasion and may be heard to best advantage when sung by the youth choir or a soloist, rather than the full congregation.

(252-253) Ready, Lord (I'm ready, Lord, to follow where you lead) is another CoWo song, with words by Richard Avery and Donald Marsh and music by Carl Nolte. It's five stanzas of "I'm ready to serve you, Lord, just show me where you need me" stuff, basically volunteering to be a minister – which is definitely a weird sentiment to put in the mouths of the entire congregation, unless you believe the weird doctrine of the ministry that they used to teach in WELS but that I was assured the synod had moved away from. Of course, that development may have happened more recently than this book. Nevertheless, some of the language in this hymn is so specific to the pastoral office that it makes me squirm anew to think of everyone singing it. "I'll feed your lambs (with the Word) ... Take my heart and take my hands, my feet, my life, my all (wherever you want to move me in your service)" etc. – very explicitly, I think, language about the vocation of pastor. Yet it's applied in a manner that shows profound confusion about the use of the means of grace, such as stanza 2's claim that I'll "feed your lambs, and first of all with food ... then I'll feed them with the Word" until "they're ready, Lord, to go and do your will." Like there's an end state after which everyone no longer needs to be a recipient of the work of the ministry (word and sacrament) and can proceed to being a minister. Then there's stanza 3's fishy "more than words" business. Finally, the lyrics' lowbrow phraseology, such as "gonna," and its Foghorn Leghorn-style halts and repeats, such as "Ready Lord, I'm ready, Lord" (of which there are so many, I say, so many), make this to me a tiresome, Lord, a tiresome, Lord, example of the concept of Tacky Hymns.

(254-255) Rejoice and be merry (in songs and in mirth) is a setting of the traditional English "Gallery Carol," celebrating "the birthday of Jesus our King" in four light, economical stanzas. They just touch on the angels, the shepherds, the magi and their gifts, while managing to allude to Jesus as the "Redeemer (of) all mortals on earth ... who brought us salvation." So, I guess it improves on some Christmas carols. It would be a nice addition to a carol-sing or a youth Christmas program, but I don't see it breaking into the top 20 songs the congregation absolutely has to sing every Christmas season.

(256) is the Hmong version of "Jesus loves me," three stanzas this time, again with no music. The difficulty of reading the Hmong language (if it's not your mother tongue) is demonstrated by the contrast between the two columns of text – the Hmong spelling on the left, a phonetic spelling on the right, which itself has a pronunciation guide appended to it. This is going to be hard. But don't worry, nobody's expecting you to sing it. As I've said before, it's pretty much there in lieu of "THIS PAGE HAS BEEN INTENTIONALLY LEFT BLANK."

(257) Rejoice in the Lord always (and again I say, rejoice) is Dale Grotenhuis' four-part round setting of Philippians 4:4, with the same two lines of text, or fragments thereof, repeated throughout. Kid stuff. It doesn't have much in it for the congregation except an opportunity to take a breather while the kids sing it. If Dale G. had seen fit to try setting verses 5-6, at least, or maybe even 7, now we might have something for worshipers to sink their teeth into. Instead, we have a trite little musical exercise for the young.

(258-259) Rescue the perishing is a Fanny J. Crosby hymn with tune by William H. Doane – the words-and-music team who gave us "Pass me not, O gentle Savior," "I am thine, Lord," "Jesus, keep me near the cross" and "To God be the glory." Basically, the all-time masters of sentimental old-timey songs for the tent revival circuit. Stanza 1 urges us to "snatch (the dying) in pity from sin and the grave" by telling them (in the refrain) that "Jesus is merciful; Jesus will save." Stanza 2 depicts Jesus as the slighted party who nevertheless is waiting for them to repent; so we should "plead with them earnestly; plead with them gently; he will forgive if they only believe." I mean, you wouldn't want to just tell them that Jesus has already unconditionally forgiven them, right? Stanza 3 alludes to feelings "down in the human heart, crushed by the tempter" that can be "wakened by kindness," like it's on you as a lay evangelist to save them by expressing the good news in just the way that will reach them – the effective tone of voice, or expression of face, or whatever. Stanza 4 emphasizes that "duty demands" that we "back to the narrow way patiently win them" and "tell the poor wand'rer a Savior has died." Wow, that's a duty to lay on people – little short of making them responsible for whether the next person makes it into heaven or not. It's truly agonizing to see a writer, to say nothing of the whole spiritual movement she represents, come so close to a consciousness of the gospel and yet turn it all into law. I fear that Fanny J. will have a lot of explaining to do when she is reunited with the souls who were not fed what they needed on a diet of her hymns.

(260-261) Rock of my salvation (first line: "You are the rock of my salvation") is a CoWo piece by Teresa Miller whose rhythms, I can tell you already, will be a stumbling block for the choir at Shepherd of the Tamarack Bog Lutheran Church, even after they've become habituated to unfortunate musical choices over many long years. Just imagine where that will leave the congregation as a whole. As for the lyrics, they have a certain quality, like one of those CoWo psalm paraphrases that barely uses any of the original psalm, that almost (but not quite) convinces me to excuse it for the fact that it sounds like a romantic love song addressed to the Lord. Put a little more charitably, it has a very intimate, personal tone to it that just doesn't smack of the congregation's worship.

(262-263) Savior, like a shepherd lead us is one that I've previously commented on.

(264-265) Seek ye first (the kingdom of God), with an "Alleluia" descant, is also one that I've already commented on.

(266) She will be called blessed (first line: "Her strength and her dignity clothe her with beauty") is a weird hymn by Elizabeth deGravelles, based on a passage in the book of Proverbs, set to a tune by Joseph Barlow titled IRENE. The weird part is that only the refrain is set to music while the two stanzas are supposed to be spoken. I've never seen a "hymn" like this. I'm not sure whoever thought it up really understood what a hymn is about.

(267-269) Shine down (your light on me) is a three-page CoWo piece by Billy Smiley, Bob Farrell and Mark Gersmehl, based on some verses from the book of Revelation, in which as many words are sung off the beat as humanly possible. I suppose that may be putting it a bit too strongly; I did, after all, participate in a performance John Adams' On the Transmigration of Souls, in which there are several minutes in a row in which the chorus never sings anything on the beat. But nobody ever told the saints at Shepherd of the Tamarack Bog to try that piece, either. Have I not made myself clear? This is not music for the congregation to sing. Or if there is a congregation brave enough to sing it, I'm not interested in getting to know it. The fact that stiff-necked Lutherans are resistant to change sometimes works in their favor.

It's a strange place (page-numberly speaking) to break off for the night, but for one thing, it's getting late and for another, I've just seen what's on the next page and I'm not ready to face it yet.

Before I retire for the night, however, I'll share one of the conclusions about this book that a growing feeling tells me this study will lead me to draw: It has some wonderful hymns in it. But the vast majority of the songs in LAPPY suggest a target audience that, by and large, won't be interested in that tiny minority of pieces. Conversely, the people who will value those songs as highly as they deserve might not consider this book, overall, to be a good investment.

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