Not very many people know this, but Bob Marley – whisper it – was actually a Christian. Well, at the end of his life, at least: he was a fully-baptised communicant of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church and a regular attender at Mass. So maybe using the tune of his most famous song for a hymn is not too sacriligious.
Anyway, When I Survey has been sung to death to at least three different tunes to my knowledge, and is still completely loved. Well done Isaac Watts. But maybe one more tune won't hurt.
What is the effect? Well, not much for me, on the face of it – an added touch of wistfulness, perhaps – but with a smattering of history, there is something.
Bob Marley is not credited as the composer, but Vincent Ford, a double amputee from Trenchtown, who had taught Marley guitar and, by the time of the song's release, ran a soup kitchen. The subsequent royalties bankrolled Ford's work with the homeless until the end of his life.
In light of this background, when I listen to this new version of When I Survey – and especially about Jesus' love demanding 'my life and my all' – I think of the selfless work of Vincent Ford, and the generosity of Bob Marley in 'giving' him the song.
When was the last time you sang a hymn to the accompaniment of a ukelele? Well you really should; you really really should. And now you can!
This was one of the very first hymns I put to an alternate tune. I had been racking my brains for songs which everyone knew but wouldn't be too much of a distraction to sing in worship, plus I really wanted to revive O Jesus I Have Promised – the lyrics feel alive and real, positive and plaintive.
I think it works – I love singing it (even in dressing gown). Plus, since it has been done in genres as diverse as beat music and a cappella folk, it can be done in a range of styles and rhythms. Hence the ukelele.
One of the recurring issues inherent in this project has been finding tunes that fit the traditional hymn format: ie. verse-and-verse-and-verse. I have consequently been led down paths of folk and roots more than I had expected, simply because those traditional styles also tend to neglect choruses.
Often I have failed even there, and ended up using snatches of the lyrics to create a chorus (eg. Abide With Me).
But sometimes, as is the case here, the problem is reversed: How can a hymn with a famous (and beloved) chorus/refrain be reframed without it feeling awkward and fake?
This is my story, this is my song;
Praising my Saviour all the day long.
Well, I extended it a bit and all, but I'm pretty pleased with how it worked out.
Occasionally, a tune is just so ‘right’ for a particular hymn that a degree of editing is required to get the lyrics to fit. The moment I sang ‘Glory, Glory Hallelujah’ to the chorus of Can You Feel The Love Tonight, I knew that nothing was going to stand in my way.
Which means that this version has a LOT of words chopped out. Some of them were by-the-by anyway, and not really central to the cause, but others – ‘He is coming like the glory of the morning on the wave’ for example – are a sad loss.
So what do we gain from this combination? Battle Hymn Of The Republic is usually sung to such a militaristic tune that the effect can be quite masculine and hard, when in reality the lyrics are very poetic and full of awe. The more gentle majesty of this new tune helps bring that out.
EVERYONE has heard of this song. NO ONE has actually sung it. Not for the past 80 years, anyway. Ripe for a new tune, says I …
I should make it clear: I love William Cowper (pronounced 'Cooper' for the illiterate among us). I love the fact that his faith was often tentative at best and was nearly always lived under the cloud of depression. I especially love the rawness of his words.
The common story (possibly apocryphal) about the origins of this hymn relate to a time when Cowper had decided to commit suicide by jumping off London Bridge. However, the fog was heavy and, after an hour trying to find the way, the cab-driver admitted that he was lost. Cowper jumped out of the cab and, to his complete surprise, found himself outside his own front door.
Using Greensleeves as a tune carries no great emotional significance for me, and I don't think it brings out any deeper meaning in the lyrics, but to me it feels like they were always meant to be together. Both are very familiar, but rarely used.
I'm often surprised by the honesty of hymns.
I don't know whether I've fallen for the myth that all Christians are pleasant, inoffensive teddy bears or what, but it is startling to read the stark heartfelt soulfulness of Abide With Me.
This is what we sing at the FA Cup Final, for heaven's sake!
Combining the lyrics with the tune of O Come, O Come Emmanuel – a song of hope amidst aching exile and bitter captivity – brings that sadness to the fore. I love that we can be properly upset and express that honestly to God.
There are a number of hymns whose titles I have known my whole life, yet I have never sung – the curse of clunky tunes, alas. The irony is that the tune-writer in this case was Arthur Sullivan, of Gilbert & Sullivan fame.
But I have never sung Onward Christian Soldiers in my life, and it was one of the first hymns I set my sights upon. I wanted something that would really let you get your teeth into the lyrics.
I studied All Along The Watchtower in my degree, as an example of 'the apolocalyptic imagination' – it's full of lines and images from the Old Testament.
I think that's what it brings to the hymn, a sense of intense, but absolutely spiritual, warfare; and in the midst of apocalyptic energy, a calm confidence in the the power of God.
And to think that it was written for children …
This is one of my favourite hymn-tune combinations – when I played it through for the first time I could barely sing, such was the effect on me.
I am a confirmed Tolkien geek – I have been reading The Lord of the Rings almost constantly for twenty years now, quote it as ‘my apochrypha’, and am constantly discovering new depths in Tolkien’s creation.
The marriage of William William’s fabulously vivid lyrics with Howard Shore’s Fellowship Theme feels predestined: to me, Frodo is singing as he walks to Mount Doom.
To make the parallels clearer:
‘this barren land’ – Middle Earth to Mordor
‘bread of Heaven’ – Lembas
‘the Crystal Fountain’ – a future in Valinor
‘fire and cloudy pillar’ – Mt Doom
‘the verge of Jordan’ – crossing Anduin
‘death of death’/’hell’s destruction’ – Sauron defeated
And just to spoil the mood:
While there are bundles of great hymn-lyrics lumbered with rotten old tunes, that is not the case with Stuart K Hine's translation of How Great Thou Art.
So why the new tune? Well, this was the song that kicked off this project (and if we don't count the, possibly copied, Amazing Grace/House of the Rising Sun crossover, my very first attempt). I wasn't thinking, "How Great Thou Art could really do with something to make it more singable," – it just happened.
But, once it had happened, I noticed that there are some subtly different shades of meaning which this tune manages to bring out.
Londonderry Air, linked for ever with 'Danny Boy' (although it predates those lyrics), reminds us subconsciously of the love, loss, and death which fill that song.
Hence, provides an opportunity to praise God in spite of heartache; to look above troubles into eternity. The hymn's traditional Swedish tune, with its triumphant, rip-roaring dynamics, cannot do the same.
First hymn, and something in the manner of a dedication for this project.
The original Dylan song – a biting satire on the theology of empire (amongst other things) – is not exactly the most worshipful backdrop to Fanny Crosby's lyrics, but it is great to sing.
I'm not going to pretend that I had any great purpose in joining these two pieces together, but I like the counterposition where lyrics full of the goodness of the Gospel sit on a melody warning against the injustice and waste that is bound to abound when we take that Gospel and use it as a tool of power or a justification of our selfishnesses.