How songs survive 1: Good Music

14Sep09

In my previous (and first ever) post, I began writing about the process of social selection by which songs become “hymns.” Today, I want to talk about one of the two aspects of a song that make them survive this process: text and music (or musical setting).

A hymn is a song that survives through time to be singable and usable by a wide variety of Christians in a wide variety of cultural contexts.  But how does a song survive?  Of the thousands of songs written for corporate worship in the 19th century, why did a handful survive while the rest were largely forgotten?  My answer comes in two categories: music and lyrics.

I actually don’t want to spend too much time talking about lyrics.  Generally speaking, song lyrics fall under the category of poetry, the merits and demerits of which have been extensively discussed by literary people for centuries.  What is and is not good poetry?  I don’t think I have a lot to add to that conversation.  But more than just the poetic quality, in the church context, the theological content of the song matters, too.  A song must reflect certain Biblical truths in order to be valuable for Christian worship.  As with poetry and its critics, many pastors, theologians, and critics have written extensively about the importance of singing theologically rich songs in church.  I agree.  We should sing theologically rich songs in church.  (That said, I don’t think it’s as simple as that, but I don’t want to get into complicated nuances until we’ve talked about music first).  In other words, I think most of the important things to say about lyrics have already been said elsewhere.

So let’s talk about music.  And let’s start by getting one thing clear: It is NOT enough for a song to have great lyrics. If the music (especially the melody) is lame, the song will die a quick and unheralded death, OR it will go into something we might call “song purgatory.”  What is song purgatory?  It’s when a song sits unused for years and years because it has been attached to a weak (or simply unfitting melody).  When that happens to a good text, it will sit in “song purgatory” until someone comes along, picks it up, and gives it a new melody.  If that new melody is good enough, then the song will leave purgatory and have a second chance at being widely used in churches.  But absent of a good melody to accompany it, even a song with the loveliest and most theologically rich language will sit unused by the vast majority of Christians.

An example of this is “Jesus With Thy Church Abide.”  The original text was written by Thomas Pollock in 1871 and set to music not long after by John Bacchus Dykes.  Now, Mr. Dykes was apparently quite a music writer in his day.  He set more than 300 texts to music for church usage and seems to have been in demand for this sort of work.  That said, the tune he wrote for Jesus With Thy Church Abide is, in my opinion, obtuse and kind of drab. Give it a listen and decide for yourself.  Turn your 21st century ears to this melody (paying no attention to the lyrics) and ask yourself, “Do I want to sing this?”  More importantly, do you want to sing the text for “Jesus With Thy Church Abide” to this tune?  I think not.

Fast forward 126 years to 1997 when Christopher Miner found this text and wrote a new tune to it.  That tune got circulated among college ministries and churches for several years until 2003 when a group of musicians in Nashville picked it up and put it on a record called “For All the Saints.”  Go here to listen to it.  Of course, the great production helps (as opposed to the 2-voice midi file on cyberhymnal), but there’s more than just production here.  Miner’s tune, unlike Mr. Dykes’ version from the 1870s, is easy to sing, memorable, and, I think, beautiful.  It also works with the text.

Of course, it remains to be see if Mr. Miner’s tune will survive a generation.  But I predict it will keep getting sung and used in churches.  We use it at my church, and every time we do, people come up to me afterward and say something like, “What was the name of that song we sang about ‘we beseech thee’?  It was beautiful!” In fact, I just got an email today from a fellow musician asking for the chord sheet for this song because he heard it at our service on Sunday.  Way to go, Christopher Miner, wherever you are.  You have resurrected Thomas Pollock’s lovely text from song purgatory.

Next time, I will explore this concept some more.  What is it about a song or melody that make a song survive the process of social selection and become a hymn?  What do you think?

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3 Responses to “How songs survive 1: Good Music”

  1. Wendell, great topic. Talk about this some more. I am really interested in your thoughts about accessibility and contextualization of music in the church.

  2. 2 churchmusicblog

    Marty, thanks. I’ll keep working. If you have anything to kick in, I’m all ears.

  3. 3 Lewis Grant

    “What is and is not good poetry? I don’t think I have a lot to add to that conversation.”

    I know I certainly don’t. And that’s a problem, if I ever want to write music. But I’m glad you’re linking lyrics with poetry. How many of our song writers today know anything about poetry? I hardly know anything about poetry, but at least I’m aware that I hardly know anything. (And I think I do have at least some idea of what is bad poetry.)

    “In other words, I think most of the important things to say about lyrics have already been said elsewhere.”

    Any suggestion as to where? I’d like to read more.

    “Miner’s tune is easy to sing, memorable, and, I think, beautiful. It also works with the text.”

    I agree! Good example. I’m a pretty tough critic of contemporary music, but I really think the music here is not only good, but suits the lyrics. I remember the very first time we sang this song Advent (I wasn’t playing that day), I quickly wrote down the chords, and the first thing I did after getting home was to sit down with the guitar and learn it, because it was so striking and beautiful. (Of course, it’s in a minor key, which always makes me about 5X more likely to enjoy a song…..Hmmm, maybe that ‘minor key feel’ makes it more fitting for the state of the Anglican communion today……Then again, the Church is always is some greater or lesser state of brokenness, so anything that encourages humility and waiting on God, rather than triumphalism, should probably be welcome at any time.)


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