Saturday, January 27, 2018

When He Comes In Glory By and By -- A.A. Westbrook

He’s nearly anonymous, but not quite. Arthur Allen Westbrook was evidently a 24-year old Oklahoman who wrote and published multiple songs in the early 20th Century, but was satisfied with his status, such as it was. He had a family and a reputation in the area where he lived, and that was enough, as suggested by the granddaughter who remembers what it was like to be with A.A., some 40 years after he imagined what it would be like when he wrote “When He Comes In Glory By and By”. He’d live for over another 50 years, but Westbrook was wasting no time on other matters, to the exclusion of considering what awaited everyone who could appreciate his words. He wanted to coax everyone, not just by his lifestyle, but also by nourishing and sharing some mental imagery that stirred his being.  

Arthur (most often called A. A. in his younger years, according to the granddaughter) probably spent the vast majority of his life in the Idabel area of far southeastern Oklahoma, conducting his life in various roles before his neighbors and family. He was reportedly involved in various musical efforts, especially in his early life. He and a twin brother (O.O.) sang in a quartet, including numerous times at community songfests on Sundays in the region. He apparently published many hymnals containing his own compositions, but his reputation was not confined to just those who attended churches with the Westbrooks or who appreciated music. He was well-known as a school teacher, principal, and superintendent; postmaster-general; and a local newspaper editor. He involved himself in local Democratic Party politics, in addition to the church, and spent his retirement years as a farmer. So, A.A. had lots of venues in his own walks of life to let others know what he thought, particularly about how life ought to be lived. ‘What do you expect to do at life’s end?’, one could have imagined somebody asking A.A. ‘When He Comes…’ was probably on A.A.’s lips, in one form or another,  as he answered those who might have queried him on this subject. From children he would have taught, to adults with whom he would have communicated in his newspaper-writing, A.A. would not have been a mystery to southeastern Oklahomans. What sparked A.A. to write ‘When He Comes…’? No particular story emerges, but the life’s course its composer had taken as a young man, and the words he recorded, suggested he was someone who leaned forward, living expectantly. He was ‘joy’-ful, savoring the ‘sweet’ (see v.1 and the song’s refrain) thought of what he knew was inevitable.

For A.A. Westbrook, it wasn’t ‘if’, but ‘when’. In 1911, God’s return seemed certain, and from what his offspring has related, A.A’s vision of that hadn’t dimmed many years later. Even two millennia after His ascension, believers can live like A.A. – eagerly. The Creator’s return will be like no other (1 Thessalonians 4), and something that no one will be able to avoid or ignore. ‘Why would I want to do that?’, you might imagine A.A. would have asked out loud. It’ll be a dazzling scene for sure, but one others might find terrifying (Hebrews 12). Which sensation do you want, if it’s one you must experience? Dazzling, or terrifying?        

The following fellow hymn blogger’s site is the only source of information on the composer:

Saturday, January 20, 2018

When the Roll is Called Up Yonder -- James M. Black

He probably had imagined a scene, perhaps like this picture (a Francesco Botticini masterpiece), in which he and others would answer affirmatively when their names were called. James Milton Black thought about what he and others would experience “When the Roll Is Called Up Yonder” in the last decade of the 19th Century, because he didn’t want anyone to miss out on their reward. And, he must have thought it was especially crucial for young people still in their teenage years to consider his admonition. Did what he wrote and the aftermath of its composition further accentuate what James had been trying to say? Tragic accidents happen, people contract fatal illnesses, or perhaps others just neglect advancing age’s message in a vain attempt to shield themselves from the inevitable. Whatever the method, no one escapes. However, James wasn’t maudlin, but rather hopeful – not staring into death’s chasm, but instead into the beyond. 

James Black spent a lot of his time as a minister in Pennsylvania trying to relate especially to teenagers and other youngsters, including in his musical endeavors. Black spent his lifetime compiling up to 15 different hymnals, including at least two intended for young people (Junior Praises and More Junior Songs) at the beginning of the 20th Century. And, by his own account, ‘When the Roll…’ was one of the 1,500 songs that he wrote during an episode which involved a teenager. The 14-year old girl he had coaxed to join the youth group had missed one of their gatherings one evening, and it troubled James. No doubt, this was so because he knew her family’s reputation (alcoholism) was not really conducive to growth in Christian values. He felt her absence acutely, and spontaneously declared that he hoped none present to hear him that evening would miss the more significant roll call in heaven. And, being of a musical mind, James thought an appropriate song would have well-encapsulated the moment. This notion stuck with him, until later that same evening he crafted the song’s poetry and accompanying music in just minutes. Could he have known at the time that the 14-year who inspired this output would soon die of pneumonia, underscoring his words of warning? Was the 14-year old girl among the saved? James Black did all he could to introduce her to hope, and give her the vision of something beyond death. She must have heard some of his other songs, prior to her premature demise, but most likely never heard ‘When the Roll…’ while still here on earth. We can presume that James would have related “When the Roll’s’… circumstances to this girl’s friends at the church, perhaps imprinting on them permanently the gravity of life and an afterlife.   
‘Does anything else need to be said?’, James may have thought. Evidently, he believed some musical notes, paired with well-chosen words, were beneficial. He could have ignored the idea of writing the song, as his own description of the episode indicates, yet he did not. He listened. He acted. He let himself be a vessel, to make something positive out of what others might have labeled a tragedy. She was too young, yes, but not too young or far-removed from His people to miss a glimpse of eternity, as James Black’s poetry suggests. Someone has set up my eternal appointment (Job 30:23; Acts 13:48). All I need to do is be there to answer when my name’s called.   

The following website has all three verses for the song:
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.  Also, see Amazing Grace: 366 Inspiring Hymn Stories for Daily Devotions by Kenneth W. Osbeck, Kregel Publications, 1990; 101 More Hymn Stories, by Kenneth W. Osbeck, Kregel Publications, 1985; and Then Sings My Soul – 150 of the World’s Greatest Hymn Stories, Robert J. Morgan, Thomas Nelson Publishers, 2003.

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:  
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:
The other song that helped spur the composer’s own 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: