Saturday, November 24, 2012

He Bore It All -- Jesse Randall 'Pap' Baxter Jr.

Either J. R. Baxter or his partner in music, Virgil O. Stamps, must have been feeling pretty upbeat when they collaborated on a song and published it in 1926. Which one, you say? There would be plenty you could put in that category, if you knew of the reputation of these two and had listened or sang any of their toe-tapping tunes. But, just hearing the title “He Bore It All” might not have led you to consider this one as the instrument of celebration. Its three verses begin with thoughts that are some of the most dismal in the entire bible. Was Baxter hoodwinked by Stamps when the latter composed the music to go with this song’s lyrics? Who would celebrate the Messiah’s ignominy and execution? Did either fellow read his bible when he thought about what they were doing here? Let’s see if we can re-trace their footsteps and answer these questions.

Jesse Randall Baxter was 39 years old, and had just purchased an interest in Virgil Stamps’ gospel music publishing company in 1926, although he had already been involved with music for some time. He’d studied with Thomas Mosley and Anthony Showalter before he hooked up with Stamps, and later ran his own school of music, while also writing a number of his own songs.  So, in this culture, one could be pretty certain that J.R. “Pap” Baxter must have consulted his bible or heard others read scripture in his 39 years before he wrote the words to “He Bore It All”. Jesus suffered -- endured agony, in fact -- and was disgraced between two common criminals before succumbing to capital punishment. It would be sacrilegious to rejoice, if there were not more to the story. The apparent mismatch between the song’s buoyant music and some of its words might leave the believer wondering what’s going on here. But Baxter’s other song words suggest he’d read his bible carefully, noting exactly what the God-man said about his own demise. It’s something we, along with the Apostles, could easily miss. His own death predictions included reassurances of the resurrection, too (Matt. 16:21; 17:23; 20:18-19). The third time he addressed this subject with his companions ends with an exclamation point (at least in Matthew’s account). ! means excitement, even joy! How would you or I have reacted? Without Baxter and Stamps here to interview, the only evidence we have of their reactions to this episode are their words and music. “He Bore It All” parallels the words of Jesus – ‘I’ll suffer a cruel death, but that won’t stop me from coming back for you all!’ Wow! That must have been Baxter’s and Stamps’ reaction, and so they collaborated to transform this dirge into a festival. 

The song’s title might more aptly be ‘That I Might Live’, a refrain Baxter uses to answer why Jesus was such a willing participant in His own death. And Baxter did indeed live here on earth. He was eventually inducted into the Southern Gospel Music Association Hall of Fame in 1997, recognition of his impact upon the many that he touched with his music career. It’s probably also a testimony about his attitude toward others, and about the Christian story he tried to draw others toward through the music medium. Upon Baxter’s death, a friend indicated that his gentleness was what he remembered about Pap Baxter. Pap also evidently enjoyed music – why else would he choose this career? I wonder how much more he’s enjoying it now.

Biographic information on the composer found in the following:

Saturday, November 17, 2012

When My Love to Christ Grows Weak -- John R. Wreford

Something was happening to John Reynell Wreford in the first three decades of his life that made him feel pain or sadness, and so it seems he recorded some personal thoughts about how he managed this episode. The prose he created and which was published by 1837 as “When My Love to Christ Grows Weak” reads like a confession and a journey that Wreford travelled, admitting that he fought his own demons and sought comfort and resolution. What details of his life could have troubled this Englishman, compelling him to write poignantly and openly about himself like this?  

John Wreford was born into a family of, and studied himself to become a minister for Unitarians in England, an endeavor that evolved due to his physical circumstances. After completing his study at York’s Manchester College he became a co-minister at a church in Birmingham, a stint that unfortunately was a brief five years because his voice apparently suffered considerably from the strain of preaching. And so in 1831, at the age of 31, he left formal ministry and turned predominately to teaching at a school he and a partner established nearby, and also to composition. He produced several volumes, including some which he wrote while still in ministry, but also some 55 hymns that were part of a hymnal published in 1837. Some of them must have reflected his experience as a minister, though we know not which ones for certain. Whatever the circumstances of the time, it appears from the verses he wrote that Wreford was feeling down on himself, his acquaintances, and his faith toward God. If his ministry was part of this episode, is it too much of a stretch to suggest this could this have been manifested in his failing voice? He wouldn’t be alone in this experience among ministers, who have borne many sorrows over those inside and outside the church. And, this was the time before microphones to project and preserve one’s voice were available (they wouldn’t be invented by Thomas Edison for another two generations, in 1877). Wreford did what many of the faithful do when hurting – seek fellowship in the sting of Christ’s pain.  

What was it Wreford gleaned from Christ’s suffering? He seems to say that being unafraid to examine the misery of God is the start. All five verses invite us to observe Him at His worst moments. It’s like I’m being advised, ‘manage your valleys by watching how Christ dealt with His’. Verse five is the climax, where I must re-enter my own life and apply something that I’ve learned. What ‘might that lies’, we might ask Wreford; what strength is there in affliction?   Just look at what Christ found at the end of His agony, he says. It’s something none of us should ignore, despite how horrible its prelude might look. Keep looking if you still don’t see it…   
Some biographic information on the composer was obtained from the book “A Treasury of Hymn Stories”, by Amos R. Wells, 1945, Baker Book House Company.   

See these sites for further biography:

Saturday, November 10, 2012

Ten Thousand Angels -- Ray Overholt

Talk about one’s own words convicting you…that must’ve been what Ray Overholt was thinking in 1959. His song “Ten Thousand Angels’ seems rather unique, with a message about devotion and the order in which events transpire in a composer-believer’s life that are opposite of what one might imagine. It must have been like hearing someone else speaking to him, yet hearing words that he’d become so used to acknowledging as his own, when he listened like he’d not done before as a 35-year old. What would that be like, and to whom would you give credit for the song if you had been in Ray Overholt’s shoes?

One might say that Ray Overholt must have had an epiphany that transformed his life in the late 1950s, except that this special time probably started weeks in advance of ‘the moment’, and then went on for the rest of his days here on earth. This singing cowboy had been entertaining in nightclubs and on local television for several years, yet had people in his life who were drawing him toward God. He knew something was missing, and something – or was it someone -- made him decide to write a song about Jesus. To get familiar with his subject, Ray read a bible account of Jesus in the garden confrontation with the Jewish authorities who sought His life. The twelve legions of angels that the Messiah-man mentioned to Peter (Matthew 26:53) caught his attention especially, and a modified version of this phrase became the familiar refrain in his ode to Jesus. (Maybe Ray also thought of a scene in which an angel did come to Jesus’ aid…see this picture of such an episode in Gethsemane.) It was something that Overholt said he’d not heard before, this capability that Jesus chose to relinquish. It’s also interesting that he wrote about this while still frequenting the nightclub scene in Battle Creek, Michigan, plying his vocation as the singing cowboy, engaging in casual “hillbilly” gospel, and yet standing outside of a commitment to the one about whom he was singing. Until, at least, one day at a church performance, where he listened to a message after singing, and then something clicked for Ray. Was it the speaker’s message, or maybe was it that his own song’s words had begun to dawn on him too?  From that moment on, Overholt’s life purpose changed, and for the next nearly 50 years, he spread to others through his music the message that he’d accepted. 

So, who gets the credit for converting Ray Overholt? The speaker at that church in 1959, and probably his own family members who’d been praying for Ray no doubt were influential. In a strange twist, perhaps some of the wayward characters who occupied the nightclubs where he used to sing also pushed this fellow toward something more meaningful. What about the song’s development? Was the Spirit working through Ray Overholt to speak to him, with what he might have assumed were words he wrote? Those legions of angels…think maybe some of them might have been pulling or pushing Ray into that church that day in 1959? Hey, maybe some of them are still at work!    

Information on the song was obtained from “The Complete Book of Hymns – Inspiring Stories About 600 Hymns and Praise Songs”, by William J. and Ardythe Petersen, 2006, Tyndale House Publishers, Inc.

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

He Lives -- Alfred H. Ackley

Life changes everything – a rather obvious fact, isn’t it? But, that’s what Alfred Henry Ackley was thinking around Easter in 1932, a thought that so energized him that he wrote a hymn to say how important this reality is. “He Lives” was his assertion of hope, despite the dire circumstances of the Great Depression that was ongoing in this his 45th year. He wasn’t despondent, but did feel a desperate need to answer a question posed to him, a question that lit a fire and was further stoked by nonchalance and even doubt that he heard regarding Christ’s resurrection (shown in this 15th Century masterpiece). His method provides a recipe for how to manage a confrontation with suspicion. Life is proof, he says.

Alfred Ackley had been a minister and music-lover for many years when he wrote “He Lives” in the early 1930s. His father had musically tutored him in New York before sending young Alfred to London’s Royal Academy of Music, but his training didn’t end with music and learning to play the cello. He also obtained theological training at Maryland’s Westminster Seminary, and subsequently ministered in the eastern United States before moving to California. There, a Jewish student bluntly challenged Ackley – ‘why worship a dead Jew?’  Ackley’s prompt response presaged the title of the hymn he later wrote. He also was aroused by some casual skepticism he later heard over the radio, eliciting such passion that his wife reportedly pushed him to record his feelings in this hymn. Verses 1 and 2 of “He Lives” give us hints of his debate with his young Jewish friend, as well as with the culture at large. ‘…(no matter) what men say’ and the weariness and ‘stormy blasts’ he mentions are conceivably reflections of his conversations about faith and a recognition of the era’s economic upheaval. It’s apparent his hymn wasn’t just a song, but a sincere, fervent answer in his world at the time.    

Perhaps he had had other similar encounters and subsequent discussions with his wife or others, for Alfred is credited with some 1,500 songs, both secular and religious, over his lifetime. Composers often tell us how their musical inventions have sprung from real events, even challenges, which crystallize ideas and spur something uniquely apt for the moment. Music that does that is like an aroma that stirs a memory of how we felt, what we were doing at the time. “He Lives” came about apparently as Ackley also studied the bible’s resurrection accounts, the fast-paced, exciting story of Jesus’ rising. The story he read was as real for him, undoubtedly, as the Jewish student’s question and the radio address that fired his spirit that Easter in 1932. Ackley’s method sounds effective, kinda like so many others who’ve composed. Live life, address challenges, read your bible, greet the world with an answer. Give it a try.    

 Information on the song was obtained from the books  “Amazing Grace – 366 Inspiring Hymn Stories for Daily Devotions”, by Kenneth W. Osbeck, 1990, Kregel Publications; “The Complete Book of Hymns – Inspiring Stories About 600 Hymns and Praise Songs”, by William J. and Ardythe Petersen, 2006, Tyndale House Publishers, Inc.; and “Then Sings My Soul”, by Robert J. Morgan, 2003, Thomas Nelson, Inc.   

See this site for further biography: