Friday, April 30, 2010

Had It Not Been – Debbie Dorman

“If the LORD had not been on our side…” (Psalm 124)
Debbie Dorman learned something from some street kids at a youth retreat in 1991. (See her website link below.) She saw in them the Lord’s word come to life, when they related how they had been rescued by Him – from certain death to a spiritual life. Being from tough neighborhoods, many of today’s inner-city kids are probably not strangers to seeing someone, maybe even themselves or some of their friends, in handcuffs. Physical danger for these kids is perhaps not new, much as it hadn’t been for the Psalmist David who fled from enemies and friends, and even family members at times. But Dorman says Psalm 124 was brand new when she thought about what those children had said, and it spawned the song “Had It Not Been”.

From her home in Austin, Texas, Dorman ministers to the Hope Chapel, producing music on an album that promotes the same theme as the church - hope. The songs, like the one based on Psalm 124, are evidently inspired by real-life events within the lives of the church’s members. What events in yours or my life might inspire songs, making hope not just a concept but a reality? King David, if indeed he did author Psalm 124, knew physical danger – from his predecessor Saul, from the Philistines, and from Absalom, his own son. Spiritual danger also leapt at him from his own idleness and the resulting sin with Bathsheba. Alternatively, many scholars believe that Psalm 124 may have come from the hand of a writer experiencing the return from exile, long after King David. Those Israelites would have had reason to sing about ‘escaping from the snare’ too. Come forward two or three millennia, and think about the street kids Dorman met. While physical danger – from gangs and drugs – are obvious in the ‘hood’s blighted culture, its inhabitants also face boredom and poverty, an insidious combination. What ones do you and I face?

I had to think about this one, frankly. My physical life has never been threatened by someone else, and I’ve never even encountered a violent criminal act in my presence, as I recall. So, has God been shielding me with a hedge, ala Job, as Satan once challenged the Lord? I was a farm kid from Ohio, so physical danger for me was working around lots of machinery and large animals as a teenager and coming away with few scars, despite driving a tractor with bad brakes and getting a hand caught in a machine when I was 18. I’ve also been in three car accidents in the last 20 years, two of which either totaled or nearly totaled the car I was in, yet I walked away from these unharmed. From these I surmise that God must have been on my side, although someone else might say I was just lucky. Airplane trips for me have also been relatively uneventful. A routine fact of 20th and 21st Century life, you say? Yes, but I still pray for His protection every time I’m on the jet screaming down the airstrip. I also see His hand in my inner life too. Where would I be without His body, and the many friends I can depend on to keep me pointed heavenward? I could think of my personal physical and spiritual fortunes as just that – fortunes, without a source. It’s really a question of who gets the credit. Who gets it in your life – luck or God?

Saturday, April 24, 2010

Christ, We Do All Adore Thee – Theodore Baker

Theodore Baker is someone I would have really liked to have met. He was a musicologist, which means he practiced professionally what I do as a hobby…what I love to do as a hobby. He compiled an encyclopedia, the Biographical Dictionary of Music and Musicians in 1900, a work that is apparently still in print over 100 years later. But, Baker was not yet done. I might have sat on my laurels at that point, but Baker was still fruitful at his love two or three decades later, in 1927 when he developed (some say translated) the song “Christ, We Do All Adore Thee” that came in part from a French song (“Les Sept Paroles du Christ” or the English version “The Seven Last Words of Christ ”), thereby adding to the encyclopedia he had written. He was 76 at this point in his life, retired, and probably looking toward his eternal reward, which he went to receive in 1934. Baker was an American by birth, but spent his education and retirement abroad. His start in adult life provides encouragement to those of us who have been on the more-than-four-year-college-degree plan. Baker thought he’d be a businessman and pursued study as such initially, but then radically altered direction toward music. He played the organ in Massachusetts for a while, and then went to Germany to study and obtain a doctorate in music by 1882. His dissertation was on Seneca Indian (Native Americans) music, so he was thinking of his homeland while in Germany. He returned and was the G. Schirmer Music Company’s editor in the U.S. for over 30 years, and then retired to Germany following the conclusion of his professional career in 1926. How does one sum up a life spent producing an encyclopedia, and then far beyond that? He could have said ‘read my encyclopedia…’, but perhaps this song “Christ, We Do All Adore Thee” tells us the reply of this septuagenarian instead. Look at what occupied the mind of this learned historian in this simple song attributed to him in 1927. It’s an adoration address to Him, one that repeats and swells, and finally whispers its main theme. It’s sort of how a believer’s life might be encapsulated, as a once vibrant and strong voice wanes with age. Yet, belief persists, even in an aging, worn body. Baker could look back, but I have the sense that he wasn’t thinking about the past, but instead was thinking and feeling awestruck by what lay just ahead. In God’s epoch, perhaps that’s what I should be doing much earlier. What do you think?
Two great blogs and two other sites listed below are encyclopedic in their depth about hymns, including “Christ We Do All Adore Thee”, and the translator-composer Theodore Baker:

Saturday, April 17, 2010

Down in the River to Pray – George H. Allan?

The traditional Appalachian song “Down in the River to Pray” is well-known, especially since Alison Krauss and the movie “O Brother, Where Art Thou?”(released in 2000) popularized it. Yet, its composer remains a mystery, at least in some measure.

Research indicates the song was written by slaves in the 19th Century who worked in the fields. Other people believe it was perhaps a derivative of a native American tribal song that was adapted with Christian lyrics. It was reportedly published in Southern Harmony, a 19th Century hymnal, prior to many African-American spiritual songs being gathered and published during the Civil War and the post-Civil War Reconstruction period. And, what if someone told you it was written by George H. Allan in Nashville, Tennessee during slavery in the South, and was published in a slave songbook in 1867? Its appearance in “Slave Songs of the United States” in 1867, with words uniquely colloquial to black slave spiritual songs of that period, seems to point us in that direction to this song’s genealogy. The song had a different name, too, than the one by which we commonly know it today.The song as originally composed was known as “The Good Old Way”, and is attributed to a G.H. (George H.) Allan in the contents section of the slave song book of 1867. The song may also be known as “Come, Let Us All Go Down”, but has also been known as “Down to the River to Pray”, and alternately as “Down in the River to Pray”. However, as originally constructed by Mr. Allan (or perhaps some other contemporary, most likely a slave), the song entreats worshippers to go to a valley, not a river…
As I went down in de valley to pray,
Studying about dat good old way,
When you shall wear de starry crown,
Good Lord, show me de way.
O mourner, let's go down, let's do down, let's go down,
O mourner, let's go down, Down in de valley to pray.
What valley? If George Allan was a slave, or at least was a song collector in Nashville, one would suspect the valley is somewhere in Tennessee –lotsa valleys are there. As shown in the songbook, “The Good Old Way” was # 104, and was among a collection of spirituals in Part III of that book, in which the songs’ origins are the inland slave states of Tennessee, Arkansas, and the Mississippi River. So, perhaps slaves from Arkansas or the Mississippi Valley could have been the original composers, instead.

There’s lots more that’s intriguing about this song, and many questions linger. For those who changed the word ‘valley’ to ‘river’, what was significant about going to a river? And, for those who wanna go into the river to pray (and not just to the river), is that an implied message about baptism? Whatever the message, the composer was thinking of family, as mothers, fathers, sisters, and brothers are addressed; I can imagine a slave family clinging to one another in this song’s embrace. And, we’re all sinners, the song’s conclusion reminds us. Isn’t it interesting that a song from some slaves still resonates in our culture 150 years later?

The following site is of the “Slave Songs of the U.S.”, edited by William Francis Allen, 1830-1889; Charles Pickard Ware, 1840-1921; and Lucy McKim Garrison 1842-1877; and published in 1867 by A. Simpson and Company: The song is # 104, listed with the title “The Good Old Way” and attributed to a Mr. G.H. Allan in Nashville. The copyright of the book in its electronic form (online) is owned by the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
Following site indicates the song is the same at “Down in the Valley to Pray” (performed by Doc Watson), with the word ‘river’ substituted:

See the following websites for brief thoughts about the story of the song “Down in the River to Pray”:

Saturday, April 10, 2010

Jesus Is Lord – Jerry Sinclair?

The next time you’re in Lawton Oklahoma, or Calais or Caribou, Maine, or Orange County, California, you might consider the story of Jerry Sinclair and how he wrote a song that was published in 1972. The song as originally penned was known as “Alleluia”, a word often used throughout the Psalms when worshippers are exhorted to ‘praise the Lord’. A plain, easily understood imperative, it’s one that a Psalmist uses probably because its message is so uncomplicated. Jerry Sinclair travelled across the continent, and midway between the two coasts, or perhaps on one of the coasts, he wrote this tune, an anchor for him and other ‘Jesus People’ in the 1970s. 

If it’s surprising for you to discover this song’s composer, you’re not alone. Most songbooks mention words like ‘traditonal’ or perhaps ‘American folk melody’ in the composition portion of the byline.  (Pam Stephenson, or many other names might also be credited with the arrangement, depending on the version being used.) Other hymn researchers I have encountered enlighten us further, telling us that in fact Jerry Sinclair wrote the original notes and words while in Lawton, Oklahoma on a street ministry campaign. Others say he actually wrote it at the end of his journey from his hometown in Calais, Maine to southern California. Yet another source – Barbara Quinn (see one of the song’s comments below) – indicates he wrote the song in the early 1960s while in Caribou, Maine.  Sinclair, and many others with him, were on fire for Jesus, and wrote simply to give themselves and their hearers a pure, basic message, unpolluted by a culture from which it sprang. Another ‘Jesus freak’ who comes to mind is Linda Stassen (“Sing Hallelujah to the Lord”, see entry for February 21, 2009). Like Stassen’s song, Sinclair’s “Alleluia” became popular abroad in many nations. 

Perhaps others around in the world have sung it around the campfire, as I have.  No flashlights are necessary to see the words or the music in the twilight shadows or in the pitch black. It’s so simple, the chords and words flow naturally, like walking up and down stair steps. As another researcher has pointed out, there are only four different melodic notes and just three harmonic chords to think about in the song. Perhaps that’s why so many lovers of this tune have invented different four-syllable phrases to make up the various verses that have evolved over time (up to 10? different verses in just a few sources consulted). When you love something, and are drawn to it, there’s a natural desire to have the experience grow and flourish. That’s how we might feel around the fire on a brisk night. Just look into the only light around, and let its presence and warmth remind you of Him. Maybe those words were even spoken as the song flowed at camp some evening in your memory. It would be interesting to hear what Jerry Sinclair thought about when he heard the song…but we don’t have to imagine really, because he wrote it down for us. If I sang all the verses that were ever composed for this song, perhaps they’d best be summed up this way. Jesus and Alleluia for all that He’s done and will do for me.    
See the following website for the story of the song “Jesus Is Lord”, which is often called “Alleluia”: Also see The Complete Book of Hymns – Inspiring Stories About 600 Hymns and Praise Songs byWilliam J. and Ardythe Petersen, Tyndale House Publishers , Inc. ,2006.

Saturday, April 3, 2010

Blessed Be Your Name – Matt and Beth Redman

Blessed be your glorious name, and may it be exalted above all blessing and praise. (Nehemiah 9:5)

Thank you. It’s a pretty common phrase. Yet, it’s sometimes difficult for us to vocalize the words. Even to God, to whom a believer owes so much, a thanksgiving might be forgotten amongst other emotions. That ‘s the sense that Matt and Beth Redman convey in their book “Blessed Be Your Name”, a detailed exposition of their thoughts that are summed up in the song by the same name. How does one say ‘thanks’ to the Almighty, the eternal God? Is blessing the Lord possible?

Maybe that’s why I say it so seldom, because I think the words are so inadequate for Him. How can I, a puny human, ‘bless’ His name. Do a keyword search in your online Bible using the words ‘bless’ and’ Lord’, and it’s usually Him blessing us (depending on the Bible translation version you use), with God’s people exhorted on a rare occasion to bless Him, during Nehemiah’s time (see the passage above). So maybe that’s why it seems so foreign, this ‘blessing the Lord’ idea. The Redmans write that we need to cultivate, to nurse along the gratitude attitude, because it’s so easily ignored in a human’s heart, perhaps as rare as the Biblical phrase ‘bless the Lord’. They challenge us to consider the following which can be taken for granted: the human body – my brain, my heart, my skin, and my senses, all of which are marvels of complexity. Also, where would I be without food, and the many avenues God has paved for its provision? What about family and friends? And, the list goes on, if you just stop and look around. That’s one chapter in the Redmans’ book. The song tells us that there’s another side to ‘blessing God’ – when times are tough. What’s their advice on ‘blessing’ in the wilderness and the desert, where it’s dark? Job’s words (1:21) resonate with those who have traveled this way. That chapter (or chapters) is also part of the Redmans’ testimony, with a hint of it in the song.

 The Redmans have not discovered something novel, nor been the first to express it in song. Their 21st Century rendition has echoes from other composers, and they call out to them in their writing, to Fanny Crosby’s “Jesus Keep Me Near the Cross” and Thomas Chisholm’s “Great Is Thy Faithfulness”. So, “Blessed Be Your Name”, though a Dove song- and album-of-the-year (2005 and 2006) award-winning effort, owes its heritage to others. Its message stands on the shoulders of so many predecessors, even since Noah (Genesis 9:26). The Redmans say that thankfulness in the temporal things around me give me opportunity to practice, to nurture my gratitude. This practice will make me more conscious of weightier matters, like salvation, God’s mercy and grace, His renewal of my existence. That’s not apparent in their song, but their book spells out this message, that this maturation will further propel my ‘blessing the Lord’. It should be a message I communicate in an upbeat attitude to others, even if there are challenges here below. An elder (Larry Campbell) I knew went on to his reward recently, after a life of blessing, of positive communication. When asked, he often replied that he was “doing fantastic…because of the Lord.” That’s blessing Him, isn’t it? You pass it along to others, in order to bless the Lord. I have the feeling the blessing will continue in heaven.

See the following sites for Matt Redman’s comments on the song “Blessed Be Your Name”, a sample chapter of the book by the same name as the song, and for biographic information on him: C:\Documents and Settings\David\Local Settings\Temporary Internet Files\Content.IE5\G3OMDD06\BlessedName_Sample[1].pdf