Saturday, August 29, 2015

He Gave Me a Song -- Alton Howard

Just what particular song was he thinking of when he composed the words in 1977? Alton Howard must have been thinking of something when he wrote “He Gave Me a Song”, so could one guess what it was just by looking at the words he penned at the time? It would be just as likely that Howard, if he were able to say so today, would respond that he was thinking of many events and their coalescence that caused his heart to swell with this ode of thanksgiving. What was it that made Alton feel this way, either in the specific moments as he wrote the words, or as he looked back on 50 years of his life?

Without a testimony from Alton Howard to tell us, we cannot say if there was a unique set of events that made his heart flow with the words to “He Gave Me a Song”, but maybe the decades that this 52-year old had lived speak louder than any single story he could remember. His life up to that point had been a variety of adventures and experiments, one might say, all of which Alton had grown through while simultaneously putting his strong and deep Christian faith into action. From a wartime experience in uniform to many business ventures afterwards, he must have had some pretty profound connections to make solid his foundation. They came through in the music that this longtime Louisiana church elder and businessman helped propagate for millions of believers. Besides writing songs, he turned loose his business acumen in 1969 to produce songbooks through a company he established – Howard Publishing. Perhaps it was the contact with so many composers and their music over the next several years that Alton reflected upon, as his enterprise collated, printed, and delivered God’s musical message to people around the world. Such an experience may have salved the pain from other times that weren’t so positive, as he hints in his words that ‘burdens (were taken) away’, while ‘sin and doubt’ vanished. It was evidently a sensation that continued to grow as the years accumulated and his songbooks and his life’s purpose – to spread God’s influence – expanded.

What was the secret of Alton’s life-song? One commentator suggested the Howard was willing to take a risk, and had a wide assortment of projects that he attempted. Not all of them succeeded, but he must have felt that God ‘had his back’, because he kept trying. Perhaps that’s what gave him the joy, the exuberance that he shares in his song. It was wonderful, because he always knew confidently where his adventure would ultimately lead. Alton may have reasoned that he could just enjoy the ride, and point others to Him – through music, a radio show, a church camp, or books he wrote, or any other multiple ways God might prompt him to attempt. If one didn’t work out, he’d try something else. Alton sure sounds like a resilient character. From whom do you think he inherited that spirit?


See following links for information on the composer:

See also “Our Garden of Song”, edited by Gene C. Finley, Howard Publishing Company, West Monroe, Louisiana, 1980.

Saturday, August 22, 2015

I Will Serve You -- Gloria and William Gaither

They had already been doing this for several years, so when this couple of ex-school teachers said “I Will Serve You”, could they have meant that this service would evolve somehow? Bill and Gloria Gaither were a fairly young couple living in central Indiana in 1969 (see map-picture here), who’d made a start and were letting their love of faith and music take them in a direction that just a few years before they had treated as their hobby. This songwriting to express their shared faith had been a diversion – an avid one, certainly – but Bill and Gloria must have felt this turn away from their jobs, and toward music, was right. To serve Him required more focus.

The Gaithers’ lives intersected in Midwestern America in the 1950s and early 1960s and became glued together because of their common faith and musical interest. Both had been students at Anderson College (now a university) in Indiana, a school geared especially for Christian believers, and perhaps this was where their musical muscles began to really grow. Bill formed his first singing group, the Gaither Trio, while at Anderson in the mid-to-late 1950s. Though Gloria’s musical expression is less clear while she was at Anderson (a few years after Bill), its character was evident by the early 1960s when she and Bill married and soon were writing songs together. They both taught school at Alexandria High – he, an English teacher, and she, a French teacher. Their dual lives as teachers and musicians was quite demanding, however, and by 1967 Bill had traded in his teaching credentials for full-time music pursuits. Both Gaithers continued to tour with the Gaither Trio, although Gloria would also later continue to follow her teacher’s instincts and become a professor. Both contributed to more than 700 songs over their next 40-50 years together. “I Will Serve You” was what they both said in 1969, soon after they chose to make songwriting in the Christian music industry an expression of their beliefs and their life’s work, so perhaps it could be said that 33-year old Bill and 27-year old Gloria were looking expectantly to the next several decades.     

Bill and Gloria have been surrounded by lots of Christians who supported and identified with them as young college students up until today, decades later. Was it their own ‘heartaches’ and ‘ruined lives’ they confessed in the song’s refrain, or others they knew? Probably some of both. They also felt it was important to say that redeemed life is real. Lots of both good and bad might come their way from 1969 onward, but these two Indianans had seen enough already in their few decades to place their lot firmly in His corner. Does what they did in 1969 make you review your past and preview your future? How’s it look?

See these sites for information on composers and where they live:,_Indiana

Saturday, August 15, 2015

Jesus Savior Pilot Me -- Edward Hopper

He must have listened to lots of tales of the sea as he encountered men recovering from difficult journeys. Why else would Edward Hopper have penned words for “Jesus, Savior, Pilot Me” in the latter half of the 19th Century? Hopper was putting words to the yarns men related about their lives on boats, lives that must have been less than the romantic adventures others might have assumed sailors told. Swashbuckling would hardly be the adjective to describe what these fellows must have related to Edward as their minister, someone in whom they confided about rough times, both physically and spiritually (perhaps something like Christ and the Apostles experienced, shown in Rembrandt’s masterpiece here). So, this minister-composer put himself in their shoes as he wrote.  

Edward Hopper was a lifelong New Yorker whose encounters at one church there inspired the poetry of this sailors’ favorite“Jesus…Pilot..” that was published in 1871. Hopper was a 55-year old at that point, and may have composed the words soon after beginning to minister at the Church of the Sea and Land, in New York Harbor, the previous year. This stone church building on New York’s Lower East Side was the scene where Hopper met many men of the sea during the senior years of his ministerial life. That he composed the hymn early in his association with this church and its members suggests he was quickly absorbed into their lives, and wanted to identify with and help them. Do you suppose Edward related the stories of Jesus’ episodes in a boat with the Apostles (Matthew 8 and 14; Mark 4; Luke 8), or of Paul being shipwrecked (Acts 27) to the sailors of the 1870s that he met?  Did he visit them in their livelihoods, stepping onto their ships or going to sea briefly with them?  Perhaps he had firsthand experience with the rough sea of which he writes in five of the six verses of “Jesus, Savior, Pilot Me”. Or, more often probably, he heard vivid stories from men who were glad to be on solid ground again. These were people who needed rest and reflection, and also strength to return to their maritime trade. On another plane, did they meet and associate with those who would cultivate their spirits while at work? What do you think? Maybe some of them ‘cursed like sailors’, at least on occasion, or hung out with some who did.

Perhaps the seafaring crowd gets an unfair knock…don’t we all meet, work, and some of us live with saucy people? Even the most hardened folks may have periods when they soften, when they need someone to steer their paths toward the inspired, true, and saving work of the Almighty. He knew what it was like to be rocked about on a boat, and also rocked in other ways, too. Boats and ships rust, and can sink when fired upon. People have characteristics that are similar, and even churches may behave like that. Hopper’s Church of the Sea and Land disbanded in 1972, 100 years after he first ministered there, but it’s still used by Chinese Presbyterians today. But, notably, what Hopper wrote still exists – as does its inspiration. That fact just might speak to a sailor.

The following website has a soundtrack and all six original verses for the song:

See more information on the song discussed above in these sources: The Complete Book of Hymns – Inspiring Stories About 600 Hymns and Praise Songs by William J. Petersen and Ardythe Petersen, Tyndale House Publishers, 2006; Amazing Grace: 366 Inspiring Hymn Stories for Daily Devotions by Kenneth W. Osbeck, Kregel Publications, 1990; and 101 More Hymn Stories by Kenneth W. Osbeck, Kregel Publications, 1985.

See biography of composer here: 
See here for information on composer’s church where hymn was developed:

Saturday, August 8, 2015

My God and I – I.B. Sergei (Austria A. Wihtol)

He is anonymous, nearly.  But, we could gather from what this composer wrote that I.B. Sergei (evidently also known as Austria A. Wihtol) did not want to be unfamiliar, particularly in relation to the Creator. “My God and I” that he wrote in 1935 provides a picture of intimacy between two – though one is human and the other divine, they seem to be close companions. That the composer may have been influenced by the Orthodox Christian branch (see photo of 12th Century painting representing that here) is an interesting possibility, considering the era in which the composer wrote this song – 1935. How far would someone go to express his-her faith, if for example he had remained in what later became a repressive state? How much inner strength would that take?

There’s not much that can be said about I.B. Sergei, other than the alternate name Austria (alternately, Austris) A. Wihtol, the year 1935, and the suggestion of his-her Latvian nationality (according to one source); another source (thank you for your comment on this blog entry Robert!) indicates the composer-concert pianist emigrated from Latvia to the U.S. in 1906-1909 as a teenager or perhaps a 20-year old, and lived and later died in 1974 in California . The words composed suggest the composer sought a close relationship with God, and found it. How difficult would that have been, if instead the writer-believer had been living in his native Latvia in the mid-1930s? The church’s persecution under the Stalinist regime in Russia would have made one’s open association with organized religion risky, perhaps even lethal, perhaps something he reflected upon in 1935. Latvia, though still independent in 1935, was not completely immune to its neighbor state’s manipulation – including the assassination of the archbishop of Riga in 1934. So, for Sergei, faith and trust in a higher being might have been nurtured in perhaps an anxious state, except for his decision to leave there earlier in the century. The peaceful scene painted in “My God and I”, of walking in a meadow hand-in-hand, amid laughter and pleasant storytelling of creation’s birth, doesn’t sound like a believer cowering in fear.  Indeed, Sergei had emigrated to a much different land, experiencing deliverance and perhaps therefore thanking Him with “My God and I”, perhaps watching from afar the troubling scenes from his homeland.

I.B. Sergei may someday give us more details on how “My God and I” developed, but can we imagine some of them now? It sounds as though Sergei was walking a bit in Adam’s shoes before the sin of Satan invaded humankind. To walk and talk, to share with God, and believe that nothing could separate us nor shorten the time we’d have together in an ideal, beautiful creation. ‘Unendingly’, that’s how Sergei concludes this song-message. Can I think of a time when my earth ‘trifles’, as Sergei calls them, would seem inconsequential? What would it be like to have nothing but joy and relationship with the All-Powerful, someone who could deliver on any promise, and smile on me for being who He made me to be? That’s what Sergei imagined. Just imagine having this, no matter where you are. Just imagine.       

Two sites describing the Orthodox Christian faith in Russia and Latvia: