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.

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