Thursday, January 25, 2007
Everyone who writes hymns has at least one clunker
Last Sunday I gave my congregation two hymns to sing that were not in the first-tier of familiarity. (Those familiar with my services may say that this happens with some frequency!) But as hymns often do with me, these two sparked memories of particular people and occasions in my life. (I associate almost every hymn I sing with the place I learned it, or with people who directed, or played, or sang.)
There is no point in my naming the hymns for you. No one outside the Presbyterian fold would know them. But the sentiment involved for me last Sunday was that when I was just a tot, my mother accompanied the church organ with her violin, and I was completely charmed and fascinated by her music. The sound of the organ and violin played together is one of the most beautiful combinations, and you hear it very infrequently.
When I would visit my grandparents in Memphis I would hear Joy Brown Wiener play with the organist at their church, and what sweet music it was. I would give anything to relive those days once again!
The reason, perhaps, that certain particular hymns were so impressed on my mind at this period — besides the fact that my mother played them — was that my church then subscribed to the “Hymn of the Month” plan that was suggested by the Presbyterian Survey, our denominational magazine.
The idea was to acquaint churches with a wider range of hymns than the small repertoire that most congregations cherish, and so certain hymns in that “second tier” of popularity were selected month by month to be “practiced” by singing them each Sunday for a month, usually as the middle hymn in the service. Years later, I would become friends with the Rev. Frank Brooks, who was director of the Office of Worship for our Presbyterian denomination, and who originated the “Hymn of the Month” idea.
Frank tells a wonderful story about this. He had been giving a “Hymn of the Month” article to the Presbyterian Survey editors, with a short story about the hymn’s author and composer, and thoughts about the hymn’s significance for the season of the year in which it was suggested to be used.
This had gone on for some months or years, and Frank had had feedback from almost nobody as to whether churches were using the Hymn of the Month or whether the congregations were finding the exercise helpful. So he decided to stir things up a bit, and chose as the hymn for the month a perfectly awful hymn (by an otherwise wonderful hymn writer, I must say — but everybody who writes hymns has a few clunkers, and this was one!)
Anyway, the “clunker” had found its way into our hymnbook — it was a missionary hymn, with a line about children “who wade through rice fields, and watch the camel trains.” Where might this be?
The tune was equally bad.
Well, Frank published the suggestion that this be the Hymn of the Month for Presbyterians all over the South and waited to see if anything happened. He did not have to wait very long.
The telephone rang and on the other end was Frank’s friend Warner Hall, former minister of our church in Leland, and by then pastor of a huge church in Charlotte, N.C., that is just about the “tallest steeple” and the most elegant congregation you could find anywhere in this country.
“Brooks, what the h--- are you doing?” Warner Hall wanted to know? Frank laughed out loud. Now he knew people were singing the Hymn of the Month!
Well, I certainly was as a boy over in Cleveland. And a great many from his list, and I owe my appreciation for so many of them, including the two nice ones we sang last Sunday, to Frank Brooks’ efforts now almost forty years ago.
We did not, however, to my recollection, use that one about the children wading through rice fields and watching camel trains! I would have remembered that!
Charles Wesley has a wonderful line in his hymn, “Love divine, all loves excelling,” where he speaks of believers, “Changed from glory into glory, till in heaven we take our place/Till we cast our crowns before thee, lost in wonder, love and praise.” Last Sunday as we were singing, I just got lost. I was enjoying all these memories, and thinking how Mother played these hymns in church on her violin, and I am afraid I started singing on the initial verse the organist plays to lay out the tune before everyone joins in to sing.
So I sang the entire hymn a verse ahead of everyone else, and must have rendered a solo for my bemused congregation. (Fortunately we were seated and I was well away from the microphone.) My singing voice is not what it used to be, so we’ll see if they let me in for the service next week.
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