Monday, January 15, 2018

I'll Fly Away -- Albert E. Brumley



He felt a little like he was staring through prison bars, as he slowly made his way through the cotton field. That’s what Albert Edward Brumley thought about in his early 20s as he mulled over his future. How could he make music his life’s work, in contrast to field labor? He probably never imagined that the first time “I’ll Fly Away” crept into his consciousness in the mid-1920s, it would be after he’d already given up (temporarily) on music school. He was picking cotton one day in Oklahoma (perhaps not too unlike the one shown here in 1897), but music still occupied his thoughts. In fact, it was another song that day in the field that gave him the spark for his own composition, though the fruition of “I’ll Fly Away” would take several years after its initial conception.
    
Albert had tried music school as a 19-year old, but having suspended that venture, he was engaged in something in the following year that he must have thought was pretty far-removed from making music, but which one might say altered the course of his life. He was harvesting cotton for his father and helping the family make a living, but the song that was stuck in his head indicates how he really felt about life – his future – at that moment. He admits he was humming something called “The Prisoner’s Song”, a popular song of the era, sung to give voice to the thoughts of fictional inmates who obviously wanted to be elsewhere. Birds were some of his companions in the cotton field, and Albert imagined being one of them, flying away from the tedium like a fleeing prisoner. The young Brumley evidently soon thereafter returned to music school, but the song he thought about under the sun in the cotton field continued to inhabit his thoughts for the next several years. By the early 1930s, “I’ll Fly Away” was finally in print as a result of Albert’s perseverance. One could speculate that Albert did in fact make his prison-break successfully over the following decades. “I’ll Fly Away” was just one of the several hundred songs (reportedly between 600 and 800 over his lifetime) that he wrote. Albert also worked for or owned music publishing companies, while also teaching others in singing schools in the Arkansas and Missouri Ozarks, and in his native Oklahoma. This ‘fleeing prisoner’ (see verse 2 of ‘I’ll Fly Away’) was eventually honored as an inductee into three halls of fame in the last decade of his life. Albert’s songs included those written on either side of his cotton field experience, but probably none have been more well-known than “I’ll Fly Away”.

Despite how one’s life goes, there are eventually days that make one feel as Albert did in the cotton field. The feeling can be induced from either end of the spectrum – poverty or wealth, fame or insignificance. Am I ‘trapped’ in financial straits, or a dull existence? Or, am I hostage to my profit margin, and to the people my affluence supports? Or, as I age, do my own body’s imperfections hem me into an inevitable conclusion? Entrapment is really a state of mind, someone says. If you said that to Albert, he might have said ‘Right!’, for to him, imprisonment was temporary. Albert just seemed to know his prison warden offers a pardon. Does yours?

One source for information on the song discussed above is The Complete Book of Hymns – Inspiring Stories About 600 Hymns and Praise Songs by William J. Petersen and Ardythe Petersen, Tyndale House Publishers, 2006. 
See a brief biography of composer here: http://www.hymntime.com/tch/bio/b/r/u/brumley_ae.htm  
See biography on composer in Our Garden of Song, edited by Gene C. Finley, Howard Publishing Company, West Monroe, Louisiana, 1980.
History of the song is also here: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/I%27ll_Fly_Away
The other song that helped spur the composer’s own song: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Prisoner%27s_Song

Saturday, January 6, 2018

‘Tis the Blessed Hour of Prayer -- Fanny Crosby



She may have been a senior citizen, but she didn’t act like your typical retiree. Was she depressed about an apparent rift in her marriage, an episode perhaps somehow related to her decision to move alone to a slum? There was something that compelled 60-year old Frances Jane Crosby to pray, and to share ‘Tis the Blessed Hour of Prayer’s words in song via one of her hymn-writing collaborators (William Doane). She may also have observed others at one of the missions she frequented – perhaps the Water Street Mission in Manhattan (see it here), where’d she’d begun visiting that year – who needed God the way she did. It was probably something quite natural for this woman, known as Aunt Fanny, to relate to others who felt that life was full of misfortune, but also opportunity. She herself might have thought so, if her words can be taken as authentic.

Aunt Fanny had already had a prodigious song-writing career, among other pursuits, in the three-score years before she moved to 9 Frankfort Street in Manhattan in 1880. She’d been a noted secular poetess, songwriter, and social activist, including speaking out for the blind, with whom she had herself identified since the onset of this condition in her childhood. She had also been married (to Alexander Van Alstyne, Jr.) for some 20 years, before their marriage apparently ruptured, roughly coinciding with her move to the Frankfort Street address on Manhattan’s Lower East Side. She began ministering that year of 1880 in the Water Street Mission, an endeavor to care for alcoholic and unemployed men (also named the Helping Hand for Men in Manhattan). This was evidently not her first foray in missionary work – she’d been active also in the previous 15 years – but 1880 represented a renewed dedication she had expressed was to be the remainder of her life’s work. So, it’s not surprising that she would have prayed as part of this commitment. The verses she crafted suggest she experienced prayer this way, and probably counseled the destitute at Water Street similarly: she approached God, humbly (v.1); and He reciprocated by drawing near to her (v.2). With such a rapport, trusting and confiding develops, and as Fanny repeatedly notes, a sweet relief from weariness enters the picture. That would be good news in a slum!

Someone might say that Fanny had sacrificed much to live and serve among the poor. And, as her own words suggest, she, and the others she encouraged to pray, had ‘…care(s) (vv.2,3,4) and sorrow (v.3). But, as Fanny would also have said, prayer lets the believer receive Divine ‘balm’ (vv. 1-4), a sweet savor not to be missed. If a blind 60-year old could observe that prayer helped ease her fatigue, how do you think that might have sounded to someone out of work, or impoverished because of an addiction? ‘She’s always gonna be blind, but see how she’s coping with this!’ ‘Prayer works’, someone says. Fanny might say ‘He (the ‘Savior’ [vv.1-3] ) on the receiving end of my prayer-line works’.

See the site here for the song’s four verses: http://www.hymntime.com/tch/htm/t/i/s/tisthebl.htm

Saturday, December 30, 2017

Did You Think to Pray? -- Mary Ann Pepper Kidder



What would a 55-year old New York City woman need to pray about? Mary Ann Pepper Kidder did not leave a record of what circumstances spurred her hymn-poetry question “Did You Think to Pray?” in 1875, so her words allow us to draw our own meaning from what she wrote. Yet, one need not know every detail of someone’s existence (including in New York City – see its seal here) to know she must have dealt with much of what you or I have experienced, particularly if you’ve been at this life as long as she had been the year she crafted her question. In fact, like her, our own queries might take several forms, as various facets of living ebb and flow, but nevertheless lead to one overarching response. Help!

Help! It’s perhaps the one-word exclamation most analogous to how we think of prayer, and maybe that was true for Mary Kidder, too. She probably would have had several episodes to consider in her own life from what little we know of her, though two of them were apparently prior (at least a decade or more) to when the hymn may have been written. Since her life spanned the U.S. Civil War (when she was in her early 40s), we could say confidently that that four-year struggle most likely generated recurring angst that she poured out in prayer to God. It’s also reported that she had suffered temporary blindness as a teenager, a condition that undoubtedly would have spawned calls to the Divine for help. What one of us would ignore God if so physically challenged? Were these the incidents that caused Mary Ann to call out to Him? Her own words give us clues regarding what general issues she thought were paramount in her prayer life, voiced as questions to her fellow believers in four verses. Protection for the day in front of me – that’s what Mary Ann thought about first (verse 1). Did city-life in New York offer dangers that made her feel vulnerable? She would not have been alone with such apprehension. She also thought about temptation that can lure the unaware into hazards, and asked for His countervailing presence (v. 2). She considered how anger toward others might fester inside herself, and petitioned that instead forgiveness might be extended to wrongdoers (v. 3). Finally, she prayed about undefined trials, capable of producing deep depression (v.4). Could these trials have been the war events or the blindness she experienced earlier in life, or some other life-changing incidents? Had she lost someone close to her, or was another health issue afflicting this 55-year old or someone else in her circle?   

Mary Ann’s response to prayer (in the song’s refrain) is what I would want, when or if I choose to pray. I want my prayer’s result to upend my perilous condition. ‘…rest the weary’ is how Mary Ann saw the outcome of praying. A sleepless night fades away, and ‘night (becomes) day’ in her account of prayer’s impact. Are they magic words that give prayer its potency? Nah…just God. And, He’s enough.            

See these two sites for very brief information about the composer: http://www.hymntime.com/tch/bio/k/i/d/kidder_map.htm

Sunday, December 24, 2017

God of Grace and God of Glory -- Harry Emerson Fosdick



Harry Emerson Fosdick was inaugurating a new chapter in his Christian walk in 1930, and so he crafted a poem-song to commemorate the occasion. “God of Grace and God of Glory” was a prayer that Fosdick voiced, or perhaps one might even characterize it as a dream or vision that he hoped would come to fruition at the brand new Riverside Church building in Manhattan (see its flag here), New York where he was beginning anew at the age of 52. Fosdick was no stranger to controversy, and he had undoubtedly prayed countless times for the fortitude to press on in the face of criticism. The song he and the members of Riverside sang that day launched a history of what Fosdick and others would do at this new structure. They saw themselves in a unique position to influence events not just in the local neighborhood, but worldwide. One might say it was a vision worthy of the magnitude of the Creator whom Fosdick and others sought to serve.      

Harry Fosdick was not one to back down from disagreement or shrink from going where he thought God’s will directed him to go. His mid-life ‘crisis’ had just occurred in the previous few years of the 1920s before he composed “God of Grace…Glory”. He was a liberal-progressive minister at a Presbyterian church in the 1920s, although he had initially ministered as a Baptist during the first 10-15 years of the 20th Century, including as a chaplain in France during World War I. Because of his views – that one’s Christian faith could evolve, and ‘modernize’ – he was the target of fundamentalist Presbyterian critics. He authored several defenses of his position, but he also decided to move to another church, returning to his Baptist roots, in the Manhattan borough in New York by 1924. By 1930, one of that church’s members (John D. Rockefeller) funded the construction of the Riverside church, where Fosdick began a new ministry. Harry foresaw Riverside as a resource for the metropolitan community – a place to serve the social, educational, and worship needs of its people. In the following decades since its dedication, the Riverside Church would be the scene where various social, political, and religious issues both nationally and internationally, were addressed publicly. Fosdick must have noted this possibility, not only as part of his personal inclination, but as a happenstance of Riverside’s location – next to Columbia University and in the heart of New York City, and therefore an intersecting point for the social and political figures of the nation and this Christian community. ‘…Wisdom….Courage’, as written in the refrain in Fosdick’s poetry, were indeed two commodities that he could see the Riverside Church would need in abundance. War, racism, and worldwide health issues were just some of the topics of conversation discussed there over the coming years.    

Riverside’s history, perhaps due at least in part to what Harry Fosdick helped inspire, provokes a number of questions. What should a church be saying to its community? Should it ‘fit in’ or challenge the citizens to stretch themselves? Should Christians be comfortable and served by the ministerial staff, or should the community also be admonished to spread His kingdom? Would you or I agree or be comfortable with all that happens at Riverside? Maybe not, but they are intersecting with the world about them, undeniably. God can pour his power on people, as Harry writes in his first verse, and offering them grace and help in the world in which we all live must be His will, agreed? Jesus did no less. That’s how he got to talk to them. Let’s get conversations started.        

See more information on the song discussed above in The Complete Book of Hymns – Inspiring Stories About 600 Hymns and Praise Songs by William J. Petersen and Ardythe Petersen, Tyndale House Publishers, 2006. 

See a biography of composer here: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Harry_Emerson_Fosdick
See here information re: the church where the composer ministered:  https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Riverside_Church

Saturday, December 16, 2017

Gentle Shepherd -- Gloria Gaither



She was a new mother, parenting without any experience, and evidently fairly aware that she and her husband might get some things wrong. Gloria Gaither says she and her husband Bill needed a “Gentle Shepherd” to help them guide their young, in the same way an owner cares for each sheep. Admitting that one is na├»ve, without all the correct procedures and ultimate answers, was a lesson that Gloria sounds like she probably re-learned as she and Bill dealt with each of their children. No two kids are the same, and so the gentle, light touch of the parent as an authority is so necessary for child-rearing, she indicates. How do you suppose Gloria and Bill discovered this principle?

Gloria did not just have an epiphany about parenting in a temperate, mild manner in 1974 when she and Bill began employing the gentle shepherding of their own children. Gloria shares that there were multiple sources that nudged them into this approach, toward this ‘gentle’ direction. Her mother urged Gloria as a teenager in a poem to follow the ‘Great Shepherd’ (God), some foundational advice that was rooted in various scriptures (Psalms, Isaiah, Matthew, John). She notes in the few pages of the “Gentle Shepherd” story that parents play a balancing act with their kids – firm control versus autonomy, admonition versus loving support. It was the constancy of God’s words that helped the Gaithers maintain an equilibrium, though how His precepts are applied to each new generation of children must be carefully measured, Gloria writes. She indicates that she and Bill drew upon the Spirit for discernment plenty of times. How else would one know how to shape the God-given gifts of each child and mold them for a future that neither parent could forsee? It’s a recurring theme in multi-generational families like the Gaithers’ clan, which Gloria shares had evolved by the mid-2000s so that the once-upon-a-time parents had grown into grandparents.  Their own kids have birthed five grandkids, and so what was passed along from Gloria’s mother -- and probably long before her, in fact – to Gloria and Bill, and now to their own children and grandchildren, will keep regenerating and reeducating each of their progeny, because of its timeless source.

Gloria relates how a trip to England with her daughter’s family reminded her once again of how sheep and their caretakers behave. The sheep often stray, sometimes into dangerous territory. And, the shepherds are very cautious with those under their care, aware that the sheep are vulnerable, easily misled creatures. We, like the sheep, may be misguided, but at least in admitting our condition, we can run to and cling to a protector, a wise one we know is compassionately looking out for our welfare. Am I in danger, susceptible to all sorts of peril? Sure. But, my God is sure, too. Breathe easier in His embrace, fellow sheep.               

The primary source for the above song story is the book Something Beautiful: The Stories Behind a Half-Century of the Songs of Bill and Gloria Gaither, Faith Words: Hachette Book Group USA, New York, NY, 2007.