Saturday, July 27, 2013

Each Step I Take -- W. Elmo Mercer

He was still just a teenager, but he had a job nevertheless. In fact, he’d already been at his life’s work for several years before he actually started collecting a paycheck. William Elmo Mercer must have felt someone’s hand upon his shoulder, and so he wrote about his feelings when he composed “Each Step I Take” in the early 1950’s. Perhaps he was thinking about how he envisioned the journey he had barely begun. He may have also been feeling he needed a hand getting out of a trough. So he wrote, as a kind of therapy. Is Elmo’s song good medicine for you?

Elmo Mercer’s career as a composer began when he was just a boy, and has continued over some 60 years and hundreds of songs. Though he never went to college for formal training, he had plenty of teaching and opportunities to grow his musicianship before he graduated from high school. He’d had piano lessons and was a church pianist by the time he was 13 years old, and tried his hand at composing by 14, so one could say he was an advanced learner. This precocious kid took a job with the Nashville, Tennessee-based Benson Publishing Company as a writer by the time he was 19, a time when he also wrote “Each Step I Take” (The Tennessee flag is shown here, as Elmo made this his home for so many years).
One might think he was feeling the wind in his sails, that everything was taking off for this young prodigy. But, it’s also said that young Elmo was writing what he felt deeply in those years, so while verse one sounds like everything was great, verse two’s ‘waver(-ing) faith’ and a ‘chasm’ opening before him, and verse 3’s reliance on Him ‘come what may’ tell a different tale. He was in a gloomy place, apparently, and was relating how he maintained equilibrium then. It’s a song that’s perhaps his most well-known still, some 60 years later, probably because its message about walking with divine guidance is appropriate no matter in what stage of life one finds himself. But, as a young fellow just beginning something, could it also be that this inspiration was given providentially to Elmo, kind of like a compass for a sailor? ‘Here’s how you do it for the next 60 years, son’, you might hear Him saying to young Elmo Mercer. Some 1,600 songs later, Elmo’s still at it, too.

Though Elmo’s no longer working for Benson, he hasn’t stopped working for the one that put the song in his soul 60 years ago. It’s said that Elmo still uses his writing pen some, and maintains connections with the Park Avenue Baptist Church in Nashville, where his piano-playing echoes his beginnings as a youngster. It’s reported that he and his wife Marcia begin their concerts with “We’ve Come to Lift Up Jesus”, kind of the same sentiment that Elmo must have been feeling in the early 1950’s as he thought about his steps in God’s shadow.  It seems Elmo is still taking the same steps he wrote about long ago…maybe that’s the therapy. Keep taking the same steps.

The following sources provided background for this story:

 Stories Behind Popular Songs and Hymns, by Lindsay Terry, Baker Book House 1990 and 1992.

Saturday, July 20, 2013

Anywhere With Jesus -- Jessie Brown Pounds and Helen Cadbury Alexander Dixon

She was a native of one area, and usually didn’t wander far from there, especially in her later years. But, perhaps Jessie Brown (later she married a preacher named Pounds) must have mused about what it was like for her on those few occasions when she did travel. And, she was also prodded by the tune’s musical writer to think of the refrain “Anywhere with Jesus” as she considered her prose for the poem she wrote in 1887. And, this didn’t stop with her, for another hymnist, Helen Cadbury Alexander Dixon, picked up on the same theme in 1915 and wrote two more verses. Both women were unique; they were in fact separated by an ocean (see the Atlantic Ocean here). But, they found something in common in this hymn.

 It’s said that the tune, which was written before the words took form, were what started this composition that today we know as “Anywhere with Jesus”. The tune-writer, Daniel Towner, had heard a powerful message by Dwight Moody one evening in Binghamton, New York in 1866, and it caused him to boldly ponder that he could be anywhere with the assurance that God would also be there. He contacted a 26-year old hymnist named Jessie Brown that he knew in Cleveland, Ohio, and asked her to give the hymn’s title a prominent place in what she would write. Jessie’s talent for prose had been nurtured since adolescence, and though she’d had to quit her post-high school education because of poor health, she didn’t let that stop her from pursuing a career as a writer over the succeeding four decades. She composed three verses, two of which are commonly used today. Traveling around and sleeping were the themes of these two verses, which she must have felt covered the spectrum of her existence. No matter if she was wide awake and moving about, or instead was slumbering, she evidently felt a peace because of His presence. She travelled to meetings and other fora outside of Ohio because of her profession, so perhaps that helped spur her thoughts about spending time away from home and yet having a security blanket. Almost 30 years later in 1915, 38-year old Helen Cadbury – the British chocolate heiress – in Birmingham, England came across the hymn and added her two verses, which survive today in most hymnal versions. Her verses suggest she needed companionship (her 1st verse) and an encouragement to reach out in missionary work (2nd verse). This is really a window onto Helen’s life, which she recognized as a teenager she wanted to commit to missionary work. She was instrumental in establishing The Pocket Testament League, a form of evangelism this shy girl put into personal practice to help talk to friends about their eternal needs. Friends and mission work…they both come through clearly in Helen Cadbury Alexander Dixon’s words and indeed her life. She really meant what she wrote.

Separated by the Atlantic Ocean, and by almost 30 years, Jessie and Helen may not have ever met on earth. Helen, in fact didn’t write her additional verses for Jessie’s original poem until six years before Jessie died at age 60. And, although Jessie may have travelled professionally in her younger years, it’s said that she preferred to stay at home in Ohio, a desire that likely meant she was there in her later years too. Helen, meanwhile, was a native Briton, who apparently only lived in the U.S with her second husband Dr. Amsji C. Dixon, after their marriage in 1924, well after Jessie’s death. (She apparently returned to her childhood home near Birmingham, England after her second husband’s death.) Despite their distance in time and space, they met poetically and musically -- kind of a nice thought, huh? Someday, somewhere, time and space won’t matter for any of us.

See all five verses here (1,2, and 5 by Jessie, and 3+4 by Helen):

Saturday, July 13, 2013

Jesus, Hold My Hand -- Albert Edward Brumley

This 28-year old native Oklahoman wrote about a journey that was still in its early stages for himself in the 1930s, but one for which he wanted help, thinking it would be a trip still full of challenges. Albert Brumley had seen enough by 1933 when he wrote “Jesus, Hold My Hand” that should have given him reason to pause. Looking back as he neared life’s end some forty years later, Brumley surely would have said that the request he made with his song title must have been answered. See if you agree, and ask yourself if you’d like to echo Albert’s words.  

Just look at the times during which Albert Brumley lived, and the facts we know about his life, and one gets a sense of what background events probably affected his mind and spirit in 1933 when he wrote the words to “Jesus, Hold My Hand”.  He’d grown up in what on the surface looked like a lowly sharecropping (cotton) family life, except that his parents provided lots of musical inspiration for him, besides an appreciation for a hard-working farm life. Predictably, he had little or no money, particularly when he set off from his Oklahoma home for schools in Arkansas and Missouri. His dependence on Eugene Bartlett for much of his formal music education cannot be underestimated during his time in Arkansas at the Hartford Music Institute. Another crucial influence in young Albert’s life was the woman, Goldie Schell, whom he would marry in 1931 at age 26. She was, like Albert, a product of singing schools, and so was a match for this budding composer. It’s said that she was largely responsible for keeping her disorganized, eccentric spouse on track as he routinely scribbled musical suggestions to himself on scraps of paper or whatever else was handy. Though they aren’t included in biographies of him, one wonders how the larger events of his early life --World War I and the Great Depression—may have affected his outlook on life and its fragility. They certainly didn’t dim his productivity, which was over 800 hymns during his lifetime.

Was “Jesus, Hold My Hand” a request for continued divine presence through the methods Albert had already experienced in his life? ‘Sinking sand’, ‘the foe’, ‘hear my feeble plea’, and ‘protect me’ indeed resound like danger signs from a guy who’d been dodging troubles, despite the positive vibes we might read in biographic sketches of Albert Brumley. He surely must have suspected that God’s methods had already been at work – including from initially his parents, to Eugene Bartlett, to his wife Goldie. Was there a specific episode, or was Albert soliciting His assistance for the broader sweep of his coming life? Perhaps it was both, but what do you think Albert might have said years later was the response he got? As his life drew to a close, this once-poor sharecropper had many songs published in multiple languages, had established his own publishing company (which one son still operates), and had become part of three different Halls of Fame (Nashville Songwriters, Gospel Music, and Oklahoma Music Halls of Fame). What would have been your answer? What is your answer as you look back?    

Biographical information on the composer obtained from the book “Our Garden of Song”, edited by Gene C. Finley, Howard Publishing Company, 1980.

See following sites for some biographic information on composer also:

Saturday, July 6, 2013

All to Us -- Chris Tomlin, Jesse Reeves, Matt Maher, and Matt Redman

When you hear the story, a part of you may say that the resulting song must’ve been just dumb luck. Or, was it planned providentially? You can hear from his own mouth how Chris Tomlin feels about the song “All to Us” that he and three friends wrote in 2010.  After a couple of episodes coalesced and worked on Tomlin, he must have passed along what had been happening in his own mind and heart to his friends, who were picked up by the same wave, to shape a collaboration that Tomlin describes as a contemporary hymn for today’s church.

It began with some incidental experiences in Chris Tomlin’s life in the Atlanta area in 2010, which ultimately touched him and three associates, perhaps something like a fresh breeze with a new scent. Tomlin had been engaged in ministry with Louie Giglio at the Passion City Church in the Atlanta area, and that’s where it started. Do you think Giglio imagined that placing a card with some printed words on it in his co-worker’s hands might spark a new song? Tomlin’s own testimony about the occasion tells us he was indeed struck by Giglio’s words ‘Waiting on God ascribes to God the glory of being all to us’. Just wait on Him, honor and glorify Him by being patient and trusting. That kinda sums up what Chris’ fellow minister was saying. This message was reinforced in a second episode, when Tomlin visited some friends’ church, and heard by chance a guest speaker talk about many points the prophet Isaiah makes. Among them was a proclamation that Tomlin admits he’d heard many times, but which struck him like never before: Isaiah 28:16, what our God reminds believers about His provision for us. In short, it’s the first line of the song that Tomlin and three friends eventually crafted.  It means recognizing Him as a unique kind of rock, very certain and worth waiting on. He’s so firm, that He can be everything to us that we need. It’s prophecy direct from Him, through an ancient messenger, and transmitted anew via a song by some of our contemporaries.

Chris Tomlin told Matt Maher, and Jesse Reeves, and Matt Redman of his thoughts, which must have ignited some more sparks and spurred the completion of the song that we have today.  It’s important to see that there was more than just one fellow contributing here, and more than just one significant event in how “All to Us” came about. That’s how He works. He can use anyone, or many ones to create and allow us to participate in His genius. You can tell from Tomlin’s description of it all that he felt privileged to just be a cog in the wheel of this machine. He wasn’t the main guy. But, he saw who really was the All in this. Tomlin hints that seeing Him in this way was what made the words flow so easily. If that sounds like a recipe for more new songs, you think Tomlin and his partners might try this again? Hey, it’s a formula any of us could try!

See this link for full story of the song’s development and performance by the principal composer: