Saturday, April 21, 2018

Hark! 'Tis the Shepherd's Voice -- Alexcenah Thomas

She was a teacher and must have felt she had some students that were like wandering sheep. Could it be that this 28-year old educator may have coaxed friends and other acquaintances to help redirect her students with the words “Hark! ‘Tis the Shepherd’s Voice I Hear”? Alexcenah Thomas  evidently taught or administered the education of youngsters in many places by the beginning of the 20th Century, but seemed aware many years before then that waywardness was something she wanted to address. Not much else is known of Alexcenah, though she left some hymn poems, of which “Hark…” (also known as “Bring Them In”) is the most well-known. She also collaborated with a musical composer, William Ogden, who was a noted producer of children’s music. That common theme of children between Ogden and Thomas must have played a pivotal role in their partnership on ‘Hark…’.

Alexcenah Thomas was in various places over the last few decades of the 19th Century when she pursued her career in children’s education, paired with writing a few dozen hymn poems. Though it is unknown where the paths of Alexcenah Thomas and William Ogden intersected, most likely it was their mutual Christian outlook and interest in musical endeavors that compelled their meeting. Alexcenah evidently was from Philadelphia and was educated in Chicago, followed by various stints as a teacher or principal in central Pennsylvania, Washington, Massachusetts, New Jersey, Georgia, and New York. Meanwhile, Ogden was reportedly in Ohio and various other places to pursue his passion to educate children musically. It was the year 1885 when the two cooperated to produce “Hark…”. Alexcenah’s poetry doesn’t explicitly mention children, but adults in God’s world would be children too, so her address to an audience to search for sheep and assist the ‘Shepherd’ could have been intended for either kids or grownups. We might presume that since Ogden worked with Thomas to write the music for the song, that he felt it was useful for the younger generation. Had they both experienced errant children in their professional endeavors, and thereby found a mutually resonant issue they wanted to emphasize? It would be hard to imagine individuals so deeply engaged in the lives of children who had not had some heartaches. Personal anguish is frequently a motivator for music and poetry, as the creators seek out some therapeutic salve to ease pain. Just consider William’s and Alexcenah’s ancestor, the great Psalmist David. He wrote to express his inner struggle. Did it help?

David’s words, and Alexcenah’s words many centuries later say something that doesn’t wear out or grow old. We contact each other, an unavoidable fact of being born. And, along the way I choose to walk, I either move toward or away from others. It can happen quickly. Or, more often, I can drift, bit by bit. Perhaps that was what Alexcenah saw – people she could sense were drifting away, unable to bring themselves to reverse course. Do those people want to be drifters? Or, do they just want a hand to reach out? What’s the Shepherd telling you?

The following website has a soundtrack for the song:
See more information on the song discussed above in Amazing Grace: 366 Inspiring Hymn Stories for Daily Devotions by Kenneth W. Osbeck, Kregel Publications, 1990.

See biography of hymn poetess here:
See biography of her musical collaborator-composer here:

Saturday, April 14, 2018

Sweet By and By -- Sanford Fillmore Bennett

He was 31 years old and owned a drugstore in Elkhorn, Wisconsin (see map here), and one day he filled a prescription that was perhaps the fastest and most unusual remedy for someone that he’d ever written. Sanford Bennett wasn’t even the first one to utter the phrase ‘by and by’, but when he added ‘Sweet’ in front of it, he felt it was a winner. It was a flash of brilliance that he received, Bennett would probably say, if he were here to respond. Those on the scene that day in Sanford’s apothecary also thought the hymn, concocted on the spot, was one that would endure. One depressed friend, who knew to whom he could go for help, and a friend who replied – that’s all it took for “The Sweet By and By” to enter hymnody’s record in 1868.

These two friends, Sanford Fillmore Bennett and Joseph Philbrick Webster, were apparently so well in tune with one another, that no words between the two were necessary for each to interpret the other’s mood. Each had a talent that the other accessed and augmented with his own. Sanford had been a poet for many years prior to the 1868 encounter in the drugstore, so he was no doubt accustomed to sparks of creativity. The 40-year old Joseph was a local musician, likewise with a long record of musical accomplishment already on his resume, from the East Coast to the Midwest, including in Elkhorn where he’d been since 1859. The two had known each other for about eight years, with Sanford arriving in Elkhorn in 1860, shortly after Webster had arrived, and not long before the U.S. Civil War commenced. The two were separated during Bennett’s military service during the war, but apparently renewed their friendship after it concluded. There were reportedly other occasions on which Bennett lifted his oft-depressed musician-friend’s spirits, so when Webster entered the druggist’s establishment one day, he needed a remedy he knew he could count on his buddy to produce. Reportedly, Sanford guessed Joseph’s mood, just by observing him, but immediately formulated the words for “Sweet By and By” after hearing his unhappy friend’s response to his greeting. ‘What’s wrong with you?’ was followed by a dismissive retort that included the three little words, ‘by and by.’ The druggist-poet’s stanzas flowed effortlessly in the next few minutes, his product was shown to the musician, and notes were spontaneously fused with words, so that just 30 minutes had elapsed in which the fruit of “Sweet By and By” gestated and ripened. Even customers in the store were seemingly taken with this duo’s musical invention, such was its innate appeal. It flowed, to put it simply.

Sanford’s words lifted Joseph’s emotional state that day in 1868, so swiftly that one might wonder if some chemical ingredient was included in the prescription he gave out that day. What’s evident in his words is something any believer might think is intoxicating, yet true. I’m headed for a beautiful place, according to Bennett’s refrain, one where I’ll reunite with others. This promise must have been one that was important to both men who helped craft “The Sweet By and By”, otherwise why would they have attached themselves to it so readily during a 30-minute episode in a Wisconsin drugstore? Fortunately, for them and us, words don’t reside just in their birthplace. These travel, don’t they? Yeh!        

See more information on the song story in these sources: The Complete Book of Hymns – Inspiring Stories About 600 Hymns and Praise Songs by William J. Petersen and Ardythe Petersen, Tyndale House Publishers, 2006; 101 More Hymn Stories, by Kenneth W. Osbeck, Kregel Publications, 1985; and Then Sings My Soul, Robert J. Morgan, Thomas Nelson Publishers, 2003. 
See this site for all three of the original verses, and also the brief story of the song:

Saturday, April 7, 2018

Won't It Be Wonderful There -- James Rowe

Was he in sight of the end of the terrestrial road? He’d moved in with one of his offspring in Vermont (see the area of Rutland County, on map here), typically something that an older person, including 65-year olds like James Rowe, might choose to do as they begin to think about what inevitably happens to every mortal. One can guess that James said “Won’t It Be Wonderful There” to himself and probably many others as he thought about that inevitability around 1930. Was there additional motivation for James’ mood when he penned the words of his three verses? Difficult times might befall a person, but perhaps people like James clung to the hope that light always appears after a time of darkness.

After a life of various jobs and several thousand hymns, James Rowe could have looked back upon his life with some satisfaction, with a testimony and a hope that potentially spoke keenly to others at the time. He was a native-born Englishman who had emigrated from the Old World (after working for the Irish government) to the New as a young man, and subsequently held a few jobs (as a railroad worker and Humane Society inspector in New York) before he pursued his true calling as a music publisher with three different Texas and Tennessee companies. By 1930 when he wrote “Won’t It Be…”, he had written the vast majority of the 9,000-plus hymn poems that would be attributed to him at the conclusion of his life. His daughter’s home in the small town of Wells, Vermont provided the background for his calling by that time, one to which he was well-suited – writing verses for greeting cards. Writing was instinctive for this 65-year old, and perhaps one or more of the cards he helped adorn with kind words were similar to the verses of “Won’t It Be…”, conceived in hope and trust. Since it was 1930, with the economic upheaval of the Great Depression invading and upending the lives of vast numbers of people, could James’ words have been intended to provide respite for that reason? While James mentions ‘troubles and cares’ (v.1), a ‘tempest’ (v.3), and ‘burdens’ (chorus), these are overcome by the nature of the home he expected to inhabit. A place he called ‘glory land’ and ‘wonderful’ would be quite a scene, with Christ centrally located and the source of all delight. No darkness inhabits heaven, just light, to which ancient believers like Peter says we are called (1 Peter 2:9), echoing others like the prophets (Isaiah 9:1-2).

The year 1930 passed, as James must have believed would indeed come true. Nevertheless, that year inaugurated a period that was one of the more notably dark eras in history, making light that much more precious. James Rowe died just three years later, at age 68, though he witnessed the mounting tempest in the U.S. as his next life dawned. Will the world be any different when you or I prepare to cross over? Dark corners, or maybe even entire neighborhoods, might try to haunt you and me. Just keep the light in sight, you can hear James recommend.      

Short biography of the composer is here: