The time has come to wrap up my series, Then Sings My Soul: The Hymns of My Youth. I could, I suppose, carry it on for several more weeks, delving into more of the country music “hymns” that I retained from my youth, but I don’t think I could ever come up with an exhaustive list — which was not my intention in any event. Having taken the series to over 100 hymns in a period of more than two years, I think it’s simply reached the time to move on. Next week in this same time and space I’ll be publishing the series introduction for a new series to take the place of this one on Sunday mornings, and I hope it will be at least as popular — I believe there’s two years’ worth of material in that one as well.
This will be the penultimate entry in my series Then Sings My Soul: The Hymns of My Youth. This week’s feature has been called the greatest country song ever written, and illustrates how the refreshing of old hymns can create a new “standard” song for a new generation of worshippers — and, in fact, for several generations which follow them. In 1907, Ada R. Habershon wrote the lyrics to “Will the circle be unbroken”, with music contributed by Charles H. Gabriel. Her version of the hymn lyrics follow, and if you’re like me, you’ve possibly heard them before, at least not that you recall… though they do have a strange familiarity. A review of the refrain makes me think I’ve heard this version before, and a reading of the verses fills out a slightly stronger sense of the Christian hope that undergirds both versions. The overwhelming sense of (particularly the familiar) hymn is almost more akin to sentimentality than faith, but it touches the universal theme of loss, to which we can all relate on some level. The original version in particular remembers the times of youth before the loss of family members and other saints occurred.
Today for our series Then Sings My Soul: The Hymns of My Youth we turn to a familiar hymn, or song. It is one that is well-known in most Christian circles, but until I looked it up for this feature, I did not know who had written it. Its lyrics are simple and evoke an image of gospel crusades and altar calls… an image that is starting to call up mixed emotions for some of us. I find new insight into the lyrics by reviewing the life of its author.
It’s time to add another hymn to my collection, Then Sings My Soul: The Hymns of My Youth. I didn’t really set out to find one that relates to Mother’s Day in any fashion, but if we stretch it we can say that the hymn is an invitation to dine, which is what a lot of families are doing with their mothers today. At least, that’s apparently what we discovered when we attempted to make reservations.
This week our addition to the series Then Sings My Soul: The Hymns of My Youth is a hymn written by Philip Paul Bliss in 1875. Bliss was born July 9, 1838 in Clearfield County, Pennsylvania.
On the evening of December 28, 1876, Bliss said to his audience, “I may not pass this way again”; then he sang a solo titled “I’m Going Home Tomorrow.” The next day, Bliss and his wife perished in a tragic train wreck caused by a bridge colapse at Ashtabula, Ohio. He actually survived the initial impact, but went back into the flames in an unsuccessful attempt to rescue his wife. The remains retrieved from the Ashtabula disaster were placed in a common grave marked by a cenotaph in the Ashtabula Cemetery. On July 17, 1877, a cenotaph in memory of the Blisses was erected in the cemetery at Rome, Pennsylvania.
This week in my series Then Sings My Soul: The Hymns of My Youth I am adding an older selection than the ones I’ve featured over the past few weeks, but not one of the old “theological” hymns. African-American spirituals evolved during the revivalism between 1740 and the 1800s. The earliest spirituals were inspired by African music even if the tunes were not far from those of hymns. Some of them, called “shouts,” were accompanied with dancing, hand clapping, and foot tapping. The image at right is a book of sheet music from 1937, published by Belmont Music Company of Chicago, containing 21 or 22 songs.
With this post, I’ve reached the one hundredth entry in my series, Then Sings My Soul: The Hymns of My Youth, which means I’ve been running the series for almost two years now. When I began, I hardly imagined that I would come up with so many hymns that featured someplace in my youth… and yet, here we are. I still have a few hymns sitting in the wings that I would like to include, after which I’ll be drawing the series to a close with what I consider to be perhaps the greatest hymn ever written. I know the series has been popular with a number of people who may be sorry to see it go, but I have begun to grow a little tired of it as it begins to be more and more difficult to come up with a hymn I recall but haven’t yet covered. I’m sure I will think of several more after I’ve concluded the series — isn’t that always the way? In the meantime, I’ve come up with a new concept for my regular Sunday posts so that I will be replacing it with a new long-running series that I hope will be at least as popular and which I would love to see generate some good conversation.
For the past few weeks of my series Then Sings My Soul: The Hymns of My Youth, I’ve been featuring song from Bill and Gloria Gaither. This being Easter Sunday, I returned to the Gaither section of my youth and pulled up something that’s properly-themed for the occasion. “It is Finished” was written by Bill and Gloria, and has been performed by the Gathers in various configurations for a number of years now. Indeed, it’s one of the “signature” Gaither songs. Even so, some might remember it being sung by James Blackwood of The Blackwood Brothers
Continuing in my series Then Sings My Soul: The Hymns of My Youth with some Gaither songs, we arrive this week at Palm Sunday. I thought this week I would feature Bill and Gloria Gaither’s song about the coming of the King. The lyrics of course reveal that the event in mind is the rapture and not the triumphal entry that we celebrate on Palm Sunday, but nonetheless… it represents another fixture among the hymns and songs of my youth.
Continuing with Gaither selections in my series Then Sings My Soul: The Hymns of My Youth, I’ve picked one of the simpler ones, though it is still very well-known. In looking up the words after many years, I realize why I didn’t remember the verses — the entire song is no longer than what I remembered. Recalling the criticism of the 80′s and early 90′s about “repetitive” worship songs, I wonder if the critics really considered some of what had been in their own repertoire. Of this song, Gloria Gaither writes:
This week in my series Then Sings My Soul: The Hymns of My Youth, I’ve chosen to return to the work of Bill Gaither. “Something Beautiful” was written by Bill and Gloria Gaither in 1971, and has been recorded numerous times since by them (including the Gaither Trio and Gaither Vocal Band) and by several other artists as well. Whether one considers it a “hymn,” or more strictly a chorus or popular music, it forms a part of the musical landscape of my youth as it relates to faith in the context of a conservative little church in a small town.
This week’s addition to my series Then Sings My Soul: The Hymns of My Youth is another with words by Elisha A. Hoffman (music by John H. Stockton), originally published in 1878. Hoffman seems to like lyrics that involve the application of blood, but as I said before, this is perhaps the product of a time when such imagery was more common in the marketplace than it is today. In any event, the song proclaims a simple faith based on but a single truth, which is a refreshing point in any time. That is to say, sometimes we have a habit of complicating the gospel far beyond its essence, and hymns like this can help bring us back to the touchstone of saving faith. Sorry for the religious language there… but in keeping with the series theme, this hymn does remind me of times in my childhood. The melody that carries it injects a sense of joy into the words as they are sung, and it is always upbeat as a result. At least that’s how I recall it.