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!

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Oh my goodness. Can I just say a big huge "AMEN" here?! :) Thank you so much for this post. I don't think it could have been worded any better.
-Laurie D