Monday, August 27, 2012

Old hymns, New refrains

It is easy to celebrate the attention given to old hymns by churches that use contemporary music. How can we not rejoice that churches of all kinds are being nourished by the wise, biblical, enduring lyrics of Anne Steele, William Cowper, John Newton, Isaac Watts, and others? After decades of rather thin theology and aberrant scripture songs, contemporary congregational singing is being enhanced by the gifts of the past.

Often, these poems of devotional and practical theology are given new tunes. When these work, it is dynamic. Perhaps the best example of this - or, at least, the example that in a way initiated the trend - is "Before the Throne of God Above." An old (but not ancient) text, which even my generation did not know, brought to life with a new (now standard!) tune, in a pairing that really works well across generations and accompaniment styles.

Sadly, often the new tunes do not in fact work well, but that is the subject of another post.

This re-packaging of traditional hymns comes up in the present context in order to evaluate the practice - now ubiquitous - of adding material to given words with their standard tune. My previous post noted that this practice is not new. Every observation I made there may apply to what is still happening in the 21st century church. And then some. I made some allowances for the best motives, in that post; and I'll let those stand here. So when you get lost - or angry - at my rant below, I ask you to look back. Give me the benefit of the doubt. Or at least humor me.

Is there a difference between the current practice, and the 19th century, revivalist song-leaders who added refrains to the hymns of Dr. Watts? Well, there is one difference, anyway. And that is [cynicism alert!] that if I add a refrain to the words of John Wesley, I can now copyright this as a new text. If I add new music as an added refrain to the tune SLANE (Be thou my vision), I can now copyright my new song, which includes a traditional Irish melody. Sorry, I warned you about the cynicism. Go back to my previous paragraph for context!

 I actually have a greater problem with this practice, in its current form. And that is that without any significant improvement to the original, adding material to standard hymns forces those hymns into a pop song structure and undermines the structural intergrity of the original. Let me explain.

* Standard hymns are generally stanzaic, that is, a succession of verses without refrains or choruses. Some (quite a few, actually) alternate Verse/Refrain. Some contemporary songs for congregational singing share these song forms.
* Popular songs through the decades have largely been Verse/Refrain forms. To be clear, nearly all folk music songs share this structure.
* Songs in this form generally have one distinct melody for the Verse, and a different distinct melody for the Refrain (it may be a complementary or a contrasting melody).
* Most popular music song forms of the past 30+ years add to the Verses and Refrain a 3rd component, called a Bridge. The Bridge is distinguished by another (3rd) distinctive melody, is often signaled by an instrumental build-up, and represents some kind of emotional release or denouement. This is a perfectly legitimate song form. If it has become ubiquitous to the point of predictability, that is not the fault of the form.

So, my problem with some elements of the so-called "hymn revival" in contemporary worship music is when hymns are re-structured to fit this mold. Repackaged hymns - the hymns that people thought they knew when they started singing them - come out the same as the pop-form songs. Examples I have encountered recently (bear in mind that each one retains the standard text, with the typical associated tunes):
  • O for a thousand tongues to sing
  • Be thou my vision
  • Jesus paid it all
  • Amazing grace
My experience is pretty limited. And these are just the titles that spring to mind.

One argument for this practice (as I understand it) is that an added refrain - and/or bridge - personalizes the "wordy," "archaic," "doctrinal" text. But even in the short list of hymns just noted, is this really a problem? And if these things are problems, then why aren't people writing their own new songs that accomplish their goals without leaning on the work of their forebears? Are we standing on the shoulders of giants, or robbing them and then chopping down the beanstalk?

So I guess I want to argue the following:
First - accompany hymns any way that serves the text, allows the people to sing well, without your creativity getting in the way of the purposes of congregational song.
Second - go ahead and write new tunes for old words. Do it well. Study good models of songs meant to be sung by groups of non-trained and un-rehearsed amateurs. The solo songs of pop stars (Christian or pagan) do not work as models for group singing.
Third - if you don't like the thrust of a standard hymn, for whatever reason, don't try to fix it by adding your own material. Your material won't measure up, and the original will be cheapened. Write your own.
Fourth - listen to people singing. When you start with a known hymn, they are singing with you; when you move to the added-on refrain, they are confused; by the time you get to the bridge, no amount of build-up will keep them from being annoyed.
Finally - please, please, please: write new songs in any form/structure that works!

Monday, August 20, 2012

In addition . . .

Back to the topic of Refrains in congregational songs.Today, what about those refrains that were added to existing hymn texts?

This happened a lot in the 19th century, especially (or, specifically?) in the context of revivalist meetings. Songwriters sometimes began with the texts of existing hymns, and added a chorus (refrain). As we will see in the most familiar, abiding example, the added refrain contained very personal vocabulary and applied the "gospel" message to individuals.

In short, they editorialized or interpreted the original text with (by means of) the new material. (In an earlier post, I suggest that this is what happens with refrains in sung psalms.) The most serious consequence: whether intended or not, history may not record and I cannot judge, the added material became the chief characteristic of the song. The bulk of which, I point out immediately and obviously, was written by someone else.

If "At the Cross" is not the most familiar example, it is the one that always comes to my mind on this subject. I am happy to work from a hymnal that, although I wish the altered version were not in it at least I am happy it also has the hymn in its original form. That hymn is "Alas! and Did My Savior Bleed?" by Isaac Watts.

Alas! and did my Savior bleed?
And did my Sovereign die?
Would he devote that sacred head
For sinners such as I?
     Was it for crimes that I have done
    He groaned upon a tree?
    Amazing pity! grace unknown!
   And love beyond degree!
Well might the sun in darkness hide,
and shut his glories in,
When Christ, the mighty Maker,
died for man the creature's sin.
   But drops of grief can ne'er repay
   the debt of love I owe:
   Here, Lord, I give myself away,
   'tis all that I can do!

Thus, Isaac Watts, in 1707. To which Ralph Hudson added, in 1885, this refrain (or chorus) after each of the above stanzas:
"At the cross, at the cross where I first saw the light,
And the burden of my heart rolled away [rolled away].
It was there by faith I received my sight,
And now I am happy all the day!"

Let me say at first that I am sure this refrain was added with all good intention. It personalizes the hymn. It makes the cross explicit. As the author also wrote music for this version, we must also assume that he had good intentions for adding the bass and tenor lick (the repeated phrase [rolled away]). And finally, clearly he wanted to make sure that this whole bleeding cross thing wouldn't be depressing. After all, who doesn't want to be "happy all the day"?

I will give the concept this much credit: that chorus might just work if it is withheld until after the last verse. This allows the weight of Dr. Watts' hymn to do its work - harrowing the singer's heart with guilt and grace - and then allowing for a kind of ecstatic release. For all the datedness of the tune HUDSON to which "At the cross" is sung, one has to admit the refrain is a skippy little thing. I have had this song sung just this way, and I have to admit that in the right context it can be effective.

But sung as intended, the chorus constantly interrupts the work of the original, unrefrained text. Emotionally, we are whipsawed between the confrontation of the cross and the ecstasy of relief. The cross, thus, loses its power, and the refrain - which, by the way, you must notice, is as long as the verse -  has the perhaps unintended effect of standing on a par with the verses. Thus the hymn is weakened, and the refrain is annoying.

Why, it is only fair to ask, didn't Mr. Ralph E. Hudson take the trouble to write his own happy gospel song of light and an unburdened heart? Give him this credit: he started with great material. Consider the historical environment wherein the hymns of Dr. Watts were among the most well-known songs in the English-speaking world. Perhaps, even, we may propose that Hudson had to meet a specific "felt need" in the camp-meeting, but was theologically sound enough to retain sound devotional theology. And maybe it "worked" for his purposes.

But my point is simply that Hudson actually undercut the original, and Hymns for the Living Church notwithstanding, eventually "At the cross" will finally drop out of use, while "Alas! and Did My Savior Bleed?" (generally sung to MARTYRDOM, in 4/4 or more thoughtfully in 6/4) abides.

Does this matter? I think it does. And in a later post I will show how this same approach is undercutting old hymns being modified by the so-called "hymn revival" in contemporary worship music.

Monday, August 13, 2012

Sidetracked . . . to India!

I shall, indeed, return to my excellent intentions to write more about Refrains.

But a word of explanation may be in order about the gap between May and August.

It is a gap the shape of India. Or at least the shape of an amazing trip I took to India with 8 high school students and 2 other adults, to work with 3 Christian workers there.

I've been writing about that trip, at my other blog.All those posts, in "Awesome Adventures" for July and August, are about India. And there is some musical connection.But I plan to return to this site within the week.