Saturday, February 10, 2018

Where the Gates Swing Outward Never -- Charles H. Gabriel

Were there tears, and a passionate embrace? With just a few words of the story, the audience of this narrative might plausibly imagine that Charles Hutchinson Gabriel and his son did experience these things in their shared poignant moment around 1917 in a New York harbor, when the younger uttered the words “Where the Gates Swing Outward Never” to the older man. (See this shot of 1919 New York harbor, very much like what the Gabriels might have seen.) How would we typically cope with such a bitter occasion, a tearful and anxiety-ridden good-bye? Can we presume that the emotions are always fretful in all situations like this, particularly if both people expect to see one another again in a much happier future circumstance? Maybe that’s what the father in this song’s story tried to accomplish, in focusing his emotional energy beyond the moment, and into a time and place where apprehension is overpowered.

By the time he reached the age of 61, Charles Gabriel had written many dozens of songs, including both the words and music, and had traveled a somewhat circular route from the Iowa farm where he grew up, out to the American west coast, and later back to the Midwest. So what was he doing along the other coastline by 1917? Doing what many other thousands of families were also doing, as war drew young men into its grip. It’s said that the father had brought his son (also Charles) to the place of departure along the east coast, where ship after ship boarded soldiers headed for Europe and the Great War (World War I). Many a scene of loved ones bidding each other God’s speed must have been recurring as the Gabriels looked into each other’s face that day. They were both believers in the great hereafter, and indeed it’s often said there are no atheists in foxholes on the battle front. The son evidently leaned upon their great hope of life in the beyond to say something his dad couldn’t forget: ‘See you up there…’, and then concluded this thought with the song’s title. Our contemporary vernacular probably would have recorded the words as ‘Seeya later’, but that would not have captured the moment like this son did for his father. This songwriter, the elder Gabriel, had no doubt spent much of his life to this point concocting songs in various circumstances, but had any of them ever been quite this personal? Had his own flesh and blood been in danger with any of the other episodes? If it was a heartrending moment for the two, Charles Sr. must have wanted to remake it, emotionally injecting it with reunion-born energy in which he trusted.        

Charles’ verses alternate between the ecstasy he awaited and the troubles he endured as a mortal. He had both at once, tugging him to and fro --- ‘…in Glory’ (v.1) versus ‘burden’ (refrain); toil and tears alongside ‘…be (ing) with Him’ (v.2); ‘steep hills’, ‘deep valleys’, ‘no flowers’, ‘lone(ly) nights’, and stones for pillows were the impediments toward the ultimate ‘joy’ (v.3); until joy triumphs and obscures sighing and dying (v.4). It’s almost as if Charles was watching his son go off to fight in ‘the war to end all wars’, while fighting his own war on a different plane. Would his son survive (Charles Jr. did indeed survive the war)? But, perhaps Charles Sr. was more focused on the broader war, instead of the earthly, urgent one, though the latter must be credited with sparking his musical epiphany. The way the two Gabriels saw things, once heaven was achieved, you don’t have to keep fighting to stay. The doors don’t reverse themselves. Once God has me home, He’ll not toss me out. As I heard others say just today, friends and loved ones are there already, planning the grand reunion. Let’s go already! What do you suppose Charles Gabriel would say?  

Brief story of the song is here:
Site of the composer’s son’ history:

Saturday, February 3, 2018

There Is a Habitation -- Love Humphreys Jameson

He was a preacher, traveling broadly in mid-19th Century America to spread the ‘good news’, so writing hymns was a natural extension of this ministry, another way of getting the message out. “There Is a Habitation” was Love Humphreys Jameson’s storytelling about heaven to listeners in 1860, perhaps another one of his evangelistic tools that he was using in his various travels. Did he draw mental pictures of heaven’s pearly gates (shown here in this masterpiece by Hans Memling in the late 15th Century) for his hearers as he described this habitation? He would shortly become a respected figure to soldiers engaged in a bitter war, probably as he told them about eternity and coaxed their faith amid the horrors on the battlefields. Could it be that his words about a certain place and its character resonated with those of his generation who dreaded what was approaching just over the horizon terrestrially? Check out the words about this ‘habitation’ he visualized, and see what you think.      

Love Jameson put lots of miles on his body in his travels by 1860, as he busied himself with the evangelism that Barton W. Stone and Alexander Campbell had used to help ignite his own faith, which had been manifested in the numerous speaking engagements over the previous 30 years. He’d listened to Campbell in the 1830s, several years after committing himself to spreading the Word in Indiana, and then was with the elder Stone on some of his trips during the latter years of his life – all while Love was still a relatively young man in his 20s. Concurrently, he was speaking himself regularly at several churches in Ohio, as well as in Indiana, and through the 1840s and early 1850s he further found himself in Missouri, Illinois, Kentucky, New York, and the New England area. Love hailed from the Hoosier state, but must have felt at home in many places, given the wide spaces to which he journeyed. He became a chaplain to an Indiana regiment when the Civil War commenced, and was reportedly regarded as a mentor-father figure by the troops of his home state. Could “There Is a Habitation” have been on his mind as he considered the gathering war storm in 1860? ‘Nor wars, nor desolations…’ (v. 2) and ‘angelic armies sing’ (v. 4), Love said with his pen. Being a Union man, and a man of God, what were Jameson’s views of the war and its ultimate aims? Did he consider it a holy venture, an endeavor to bring freedom for all the nation’s people, when he wrote the words ‘There is a habitation…for all of every nation…’ (v.1)? Sure, he was thinking of the heavenly habitation, but could he have ignored the earthly dwelling he and his countrymen inhabited as he witnessed the passionate debate of the opposing sides splitting his home asunder here on earth? He longed for heaven’s harmony, perhaps as he considered the intractable racist division in his country. Was there another circumstance that could have captured his attention, as he traveled the Midwest and Northeast in the 1850s?        

Love Jameson’s life might be succinctly summed up in some 150 hymns that he reportedly wrote over his lifetime, but his gifts as an evangelist might make that measuring stick far too short. He reached out pretty wide with his speaking engagements during 50-plus years of ministry. If one could calculate how many songs must have been sung during his various trips, 150 songs would surely have been eclipsed after just a few months. He must have used many times that number to influence the thousands, if not more, people that were within earshot of his voice. Nevertheless, that’s a horizontal reckoning – between him and other people. Love thought vertically, too, with this song, and wanted others to do the same. I like my house and its many comforts. But, how’s it really compare to what awaits? It doesn’t, does it?

The following site has information on composer:
See further information on the composer here:
This site has the song’s four verses:

Saturday, January 27, 2018

When He Comes In Glory By and By -- A.A. Westbrook

He’s nearly anonymous, but not quite. Arthur Allen Westbrook was evidently a 24-year old Oklahoman who wrote and published multiple songs in the early 20th Century, but was satisfied with his status, such as it was. He had a family and a reputation in the area where he lived, and that was enough, as suggested by the granddaughter who remembers what it was like to be with A.A., some 40 years after he imagined what it would be like when he wrote “When He Comes In Glory By and By”. He’d live for over another 50 years, but Westbrook was wasting no time on other matters, to the exclusion of considering what awaited everyone who could appreciate his words. He wanted to coax everyone, not just by his lifestyle, but also by nourishing and sharing some mental imagery that stirred his being.  

Arthur (most often called A. A. in his younger years, according to the granddaughter) probably spent the vast majority of his life in the Idabel area of far southeastern Oklahoma, conducting his life in various roles before his neighbors and family. He was reportedly involved in various musical efforts, especially in his early life. He and a twin brother (O.O.) sang in a quartet, including numerous times at community songfests on Sundays in the region. He apparently published many hymnals containing his own compositions, but his reputation was not confined to just those who attended churches with the Westbrooks or who appreciated music. He was well-known as a school teacher, principal, and superintendent; postmaster-general; and a local newspaper editor. He involved himself in local Democratic Party politics, in addition to the church, and spent his retirement years as a farmer. So, A.A. had lots of venues in his own walks of life to let others know what he thought, particularly about how life ought to be lived. ‘What do you expect to do at life’s end?’, one could have imagined somebody asking A.A. ‘When He Comes…’ was probably on A.A.’s lips, in one form or another,  as he answered those who might have queried him on this subject. From children he would have taught, to adults with whom he would have communicated in his newspaper-writing, A.A. would not have been a mystery to southeastern Oklahomans. What sparked A.A. to write ‘When He Comes…’? No particular story emerges, but the life’s course its composer had taken as a young man, and the words he recorded, suggested he was someone who leaned forward, living expectantly. He was ‘joy’-ful, savoring the ‘sweet’ (see v.1 and the song’s refrain) thought of what he knew was inevitable.

For A.A. Westbrook, it wasn’t ‘if’, but ‘when’. In 1911, God’s return seemed certain, and from what his offspring has related, A.A’s vision of that hadn’t dimmed many years later. Even two millennia after His ascension, believers can live like A.A. – eagerly. The Creator’s return will be like no other (1 Thessalonians 4), and something that no one will be able to avoid or ignore. ‘Why would I want to do that?’, you might imagine A.A. would have asked out loud. It’ll be a dazzling scene for sure, but one others might find terrifying (Hebrews 12). Which sensation do you want, if it’s one you must experience? Dazzling, or terrifying?        

The following fellow hymn blogger’s site is the only source of information on the composer:

Saturday, January 20, 2018

When the Roll is Called Up Yonder -- James M. Black

He probably had imagined a scene, perhaps like this picture (a Francesco Botticini masterpiece), in which he and others would answer affirmatively when their names were called. James Milton Black thought about what he and others would experience “When the Roll Is Called Up Yonder” in the last decade of the 19th Century, because he didn’t want anyone to miss out on their reward. And, he must have thought it was especially crucial for young people still in their teenage years to consider his admonition. Did what he wrote and the aftermath of its composition further accentuate what James had been trying to say? Tragic accidents happen, people contract fatal illnesses, or perhaps others just neglect advancing age’s message in a vain attempt to shield themselves from the inevitable. Whatever the method, no one escapes. However, James wasn’t maudlin, but rather hopeful – not staring into death’s chasm, but instead into the beyond. 

James Black spent a lot of his time as a minister in Pennsylvania trying to relate especially to teenagers and other youngsters, including in his musical endeavors. Black spent his lifetime compiling up to 15 different hymnals, including at least two intended for young people (Junior Praises and More Junior Songs) at the beginning of the 20th Century. And, by his own account, ‘When the Roll…’ was one of the 1,500 songs that he wrote during an episode which involved a teenager. The 14-year old girl he had coaxed to join the youth group had missed one of their gatherings one evening, and it troubled James. No doubt, this was so because he knew her family’s reputation (alcoholism) was not really conducive to growth in Christian values. He felt her absence acutely, and spontaneously declared that he hoped none present to hear him that evening would miss the more significant roll call in heaven. And, being of a musical mind, James thought an appropriate song would have well-encapsulated the moment. This notion stuck with him, until later that same evening he crafted the song’s poetry and accompanying music in just minutes. Could he have known at the time that the 14-year who inspired this output would soon die of pneumonia, underscoring his words of warning? Was the 14-year old girl among the saved? James Black did all he could to introduce her to hope, and give her the vision of something beyond death. She must have heard some of his other songs, prior to her premature demise, but most likely never heard ‘When the Roll…’ while still here on earth. We can presume that James would have related “When the Roll’s’… circumstances to this girl’s friends at the church, perhaps imprinting on them permanently the gravity of life and an afterlife.   
‘Does anything else need to be said?’, James may have thought. Evidently, he believed some musical notes, paired with well-chosen words, were beneficial. He could have ignored the idea of writing the song, as his own description of the episode indicates, yet he did not. He listened. He acted. He let himself be a vessel, to make something positive out of what others might have labeled a tragedy. She was too young, yes, but not too young or far-removed from His people to miss a glimpse of eternity, as James Black’s poetry suggests. Someone has set up my eternal appointment (Job 30:23; Acts 13:48). All I need to do is be there to answer when my name’s called.   

The following website has all three verses for the song:
See more information on the song discussed above in The Complete Book of Hymns – Inspiring Stories About 600 Hymns and Praise Songs by William J. Petersen and Ardythe Petersen, Tyndale House Publishers, 2006.  Also, see Amazing Grace: 366 Inspiring Hymn Stories for Daily Devotions by Kenneth W. Osbeck, Kregel Publications, 1990; 101 More Hymn Stories, by Kenneth W. Osbeck, Kregel Publications, 1985; and Then Sings My Soul – 150 of the World’s Greatest Hymn Stories, Robert J. Morgan, Thomas Nelson Publishers, 2003.

Monday, January 15, 2018

I'll Fly Away -- Albert E. Brumley

He felt a little like he was staring through prison bars, as he slowly made his way through the cotton field. That’s what Albert Edward Brumley thought about in his early 20s as he mulled over his future. How could he make music his life’s work, in contrast to field labor? He probably never imagined that the first time “I’ll Fly Away” crept into his consciousness in the mid-1920s, it would be after he’d already given up (temporarily) on music school. He was picking cotton one day in Oklahoma (perhaps not too unlike the one shown here in 1897), but music still occupied his thoughts. In fact, it was another song that day in the field that gave him the spark for his own composition, though the fruition of “I’ll Fly Away” would take several years after its initial conception.
Albert had tried music school as a 19-year old, but having suspended that venture, he was engaged in something in the following year that he must have thought was pretty far-removed from making music, but which one might say altered the course of his life. He was harvesting cotton for his father and helping the family make a living, but the song that was stuck in his head indicates how he really felt about life – his future – at that moment. He admits he was humming something called “The Prisoner’s Song”, a popular song of the era, sung to give voice to the thoughts of fictional inmates who obviously wanted to be elsewhere. Birds were some of his companions in the cotton field, and Albert imagined being one of them, flying away from the tedium like a fleeing prisoner. The young Brumley evidently soon thereafter returned to music school, but the song he thought about under the sun in the cotton field continued to inhabit his thoughts for the next several years. By the early 1930s, “I’ll Fly Away” was finally in print as a result of Albert’s perseverance. One could speculate that Albert did in fact make his prison-break successfully over the following decades. “I’ll Fly Away” was just one of the several hundred songs (reportedly between 600 and 800 over his lifetime) that he wrote. Albert also worked for or owned music publishing companies, while also teaching others in singing schools in the Arkansas and Missouri Ozarks, and in his native Oklahoma. This ‘fleeing prisoner’ (see verse 2 of ‘I’ll Fly Away’) was eventually honored as an inductee into three halls of fame in the last decade of his life. Albert’s songs included those written on either side of his cotton field experience, but probably none have been more well-known than “I’ll Fly Away”.

Despite how one’s life goes, there are eventually days that make one feel as Albert did in the cotton field. The feeling can be induced from either end of the spectrum – poverty or wealth, fame or insignificance. Am I ‘trapped’ in financial straits, or a dull existence? Or, am I hostage to my profit margin, and to the people my affluence supports? Or, as I age, do my own body’s imperfections hem me into an inevitable conclusion? Entrapment is really a state of mind, someone says. If you said that to Albert, he might have said ‘Right!’, for to him, imprisonment was temporary. Albert just seemed to know his prison warden offers a pardon. Does yours?

One source for information on the song discussed above is The Complete Book of Hymns – Inspiring Stories About 600 Hymns and Praise Songs by William J. Petersen and Ardythe Petersen, Tyndale House Publishers, 2006. 
See a brief biography of composer here:  
See biography on composer in Our Garden of Song, edited by Gene C. Finley, Howard Publishing Company, West Monroe, Louisiana, 1980.
History of the song is also here:
The other song that helped spur the composer’s own song: