TBT: The Joy of Hymnals

It being October, I tend to focus on the spookiness of the season.  I love Halloween, ghost stories, and scary movies, but it’s important not to get too bogged down in the chills.

So as I was going through posts from October 2019, I stumbled upon one of my old favorites:  “The Joy of Hymnals.”  My small church roped me into playing piano for Sunday morning services maybe two years ago, and it quickly rekindled an old love of hymns and hymnals.

Hymnals are my favorite items to find in old second-hand shops and antique stores (the latter of which often selling them at an egregious markup).  It’s fun to see which hymns do—and, more importantly, don’t—show up in any given hymnal.  I particularly like slender volumes, the kind that were meant for carrying from service to service or camp meeting to camp meeting, and which tend to possess hymns from the canon, if such a thing exists, of hymnody.

I even recorded and released a very lo-fi EP, The Lo-Fi Hymnal, which consists of crude recordings of my Sunday morning playing.  That short collection also includes a PDF version of today’s TBT feature.

Here is “The Joy of Hymnals“:

I recently started playing piano for Wednesday night and some Sunday services at my little Free Will Baptist Church.  My church has about thirty or forty attendees on a good Sunday morning, so it’s slim pickings for pianists.

The little old lady who had been playing is very feeble, and she managed to miss more accidentals than a seventh-grade clarinet player due to her failing hearing and eyesight.  As such, she was eager to pass off the monkey’s paw of church piano playing to someone else.

As such, I’ve gradually improved my sightreading.  More importantly, I’ve enjoyed the opportunity to reacquaint myself with some wonderful old hymns—and to learn some for the first time.

I grew up playing saxophone in church, so I know the melodies and harmonies for dozens of tunes—and lyrics to only the choruses.  The power of hymns, however, lies mostly in those lyrics.  It’s been through the repetition of hymn singing, surely, that the message of the Gospel has been reinforced better than any number of sermons.

There is power in the music, too.  Catholics might have beautiful buildings and amazing choral music, but Protestants win the hymn contest.  So many classic hymns are born of nineteenth- and early twentieth-century folk music—source material that makes for easy singability and pentatonic melodies.

They are also hard to play well—sometimes.  Hymn writers apparently love to write secondary dominants (so do I), which makes for soaring vocal lines but difficult piano accompaniment.  That said, I’d rather play one of those (like the classic “He Lives,” Number 64 in the classic Free Will Baptist Hymn Book, which moves from the tonic Bb to a major III D in the span of one downbeat, and also features a saucy C7 pointing to the dominant F7 chord) than a two-chorder—unless I’m sightreading in a hurry.

Christmas music—which I will start playing next month (Halloween deserves a month to itself)—is notoriously difficult melodically, with its many leaps and bounds.  Every Christmas it seems I have to relearn classic melodies on my sax, an instrument that can’t slide around looking for the pitch (like a solid trombonist in my extended family who notoriously would slide all around the pitch until he got it).  It’ll be even more challenging on piano.

All the same, I’ve been very thankful for the opportunity to play—and for the congregation’s forbearance.  There is an anatomy to how I play in church on a congregational singing (for the unfamiliar, it should be known that every Baptist church always sings the first, second, and fourth or final verses, never the third; I don’t know why, but it’s a time-honored tradition, so if you have something important to say, don’t put it in the third verse).  The first verse I play somewhat sloppily, but mostly correct.  I get more confident and play the second verse fairly well, with maybe one or two minor errors.

By the third verse, I’m getting cocky and relaxed, and start putting in little flourishes and turns (the ladies at church—seriously—call me “Liberace,” presumably because of my Baroque ornamentation, not because I’m light in the loafers).  Naturally, that’s when I make the biggest mistakes.  But I always land home on the tonic.  Mostly.

But I digress.  I despise the fad in churches towards the massive, pre-sermon rock concert, full of sustained-second chords and flat melodies.  The mistake of contemporary Christian praise music is that it tries to substitute feel-good lyrical and harmonic structures for actual Truth.  The result is songs with two-tone, repetitive melodies and stagnant harmonic structures—and lame, “Jesus is my boyfriend”-style lyrics.

Contemporary Christian music also assumes that people will enjoy the music if it’s a two-note melody, because it’s easier to sing.  WRONG!  Last Christmas, my little niece (who was three at the time) was belting out “O Come Let Us Adore Him” at the Christmas Eve candlelight service at my parents’ church like she’d been singing her whole life.

Old hymns are rich musically and theologically.  Churches should bring back some of these classics.  There are so many wonderful pieces to rediscover, and it might do Christendom good to have people singing songs with titles like “Saved” and “Blessed Assurance,” rather than “Oceans.”


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8 thoughts on “TBT: The Joy of Hymnals

  1. Great article, Port!

    There is an online site, The Conservative Woman UK, that has a marvelous writer, Margaret Ashworth. Every Wednesday she adds to her series Midweek Hymn. Margaret does all the research work (she’s like the Energizer Bunny, that woman) and gives the background story on that particular day’s hymn – the biography of the hymn writer, when the hymn was published, who wrote the music for the hymn, etc. You really should check her out. Oh, and just so you know, there are more men commenters on The Conservative Woman than there are female commenters so don’t feel ‘funny’ about going there.

    I’m big on Halloween, too, but re-studied All Souls Day, which prompted me to go to YouTube to see what I could find. I had gone through my 1940 Protestant Hymnal used by Episcopal and Anglican churches and couldn’t find an All Souls Day hymn. Imagine my surprise and delight to find this absolute gem https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MPe-MDmyOW4

    Liked by 2 people

    • Wowser, Audre, what a find. Finlandia as an All Saint’s Day hymn, and the best performance (possibly) ever by a Catholic choir. Still, they’re not all that rare, here one from the Lutheran side.

      Liked by 1 person

    • That sounds fascinating! I have been toying with the idea of writing a short eBook about the history of certain hymns; sounds like her blog would be an invaluable source.

      I’m looking forward to checking out your and NEO’s YouTube links. I’m out of town at the moment, and it was a crazy week, so I’m going to catch up on them tomorrow when I return.


  2. Been said many times, by me, and by far matter people than me, Protestant hymnody is some of the best theology in Christendom, and has been since Luther started writing hymns. Far too often we try to go with the flow, and appeal to the young, but now we are finding that the young, unlike our generation, know better and want the eternal verities that made the west the best.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I agree with this comment 100%, NEO. I’m teaching a Pre-AP Music Appreciation course this year, and we’ve gotten into Medieval and Renaissance music. As we’re getting into the Protestant Reformation, I’ve been pointing out to the students how hymns are effective at conveying Christian theology in a way that’s incredibly fun and memorable—in song! I think we’re losing something with contemporary Christian music, which is both theologically and musically shallow.

      Liked by 1 person

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