Thursday, August 28, 2014

Heaven Came Down – John Willard Peterson

You could say that two gentleman, perhaps two generations apart in age, wrote this song. Forty-year-old John Peterson probably did not suspect as he guided singing one day that another older man would in fact guide him to a song. But, “Heaven Came Down” through that on-the-spot coincidence of these two fellows in northeast Pennsylvania (see picture of Montrose here) in 1961, producing this musical story just a week later. You don’t know when two paths may intersect to germinate something special, but do you suppose composers are more attuned to unpredictable circumstances and the possibilities they bring?

It came about during a summer in Montrose, near the Pennsylvania-New York border in 1961, but it’s fair to say the pump had already been primed for many years in more ways than one for a musical fountain to flow. A white-haired man known only as ‘old Jim’ had evidently been converted to the Christian faith some years previously, although that experience must have still been fresh in his mind as he stood to tell his story. It was a bible conference that brought the old man to that place where the comparative youngster John Peterson was directing the forum’s singing. Peterson had been engaged in musical enterprises ever since his teenage years, including in Montrose for the Singspiration Musical Company for the previous seven years. He was a music pro. So, when he asked for folks in the crowd to share their stories, did he in fact suspect someone might recite something unique? Was he searching for that next hit? Did the music that day motivate ‘old Jim’ (we can guess from the description of him with white hair that he might have been around 80 years old or more) to pour something from his heart in a new way? Some things evidently coalesced, for when Jim uttered the words of the chorus’ first line, they captured John’s attention, who says he knew immediately this one would be a first-rate effort. The seed of the song—its embryo—is what Peterson says is most important, and he heard it that day, and saw it on the face of Jim. The old man’s face may have been wrinkled, but he radiated something potent. He’d been in contact with His Spirit, kinda like Moses, and his insides just couldn’t keep it hid.

So “Heaven Came Down” off John Peterson’s pen about a week later, perhaps as he recalled not just ‘old Jim’s’ words, but his face too. John, over the decades, wrote some 1,000 tunes, prompting one to imagine that he must have seen and heard similar faces and words as he lived and carried out his musical ministry. Montrose…it could be like any other little town in America, population about 1,500 people. But, He’s not too particular about the size and location of a place. Nazareth --  what good could come from there? Are you in a Nazareth today? Look at the faces, hear the voices…     

The following sources provided background for this story:

 Stories Behind Popular Songs and Hymns, by Lindsay Terry, Baker Book House 1990 and 1992; and The Complete Book of Hymns – Inspiring Stories About 600 Hymns and Praise Songs, by William J. and Ardythe Petersen, 2006, Tyndale House Publishers, Inc.

Background on the song’s birthplace:,_Pennsylvania

Thursday, August 21, 2014

Redeemed -- Fanny Crosby

Here was a 62-year old woman, choosing to live below the standard she could have, because of what? Can you or I guess where Fanny Jane Crosby was when she penned “Redeemed” in 1882? Fortunately, Crosby’s life was not one hidden among crevices nor behind curtains, but among many witnesses. That’s how folks, those who have nothing to hide, live. Because she was mortal, like you or me, she was also a mistake-maker. Yet one who’s been given a second or many more chances to walk the straight and narrow is also someone who’s familiar with this honest, human admission – I can’t meet the perfection standard, particularly as I continue to live and add more years to my life resume’. I need help. Fanny described it with the one-word title of this song.  

Frances (Fanny, even Aunt Fanny to many) had decided in the few years before 1882 that she wanted to make a more concerted effort to reach the poor through missionary work, and she focused herself principally on New York’s Manhattan area. She reportedly lived in a very humble apartment at 9 Frankfort Street, a slum, until 1884. Some call it Skid Row. The Water Street (see its picture here), Bowery, Howard, Cremore, Door of Hope, and probably other mission works became synonymous with Fanny’s life outreach to those in poverty. It might have also been an area that plagued its inhabitants with crime. No doubt, a lot was wrong with this area. Maybe that’s what drew Fanny there. Fanny chose a word ‘redeem’ to underscore her message to Skid Rowers. It probably wasn’t one she devised herself, but biblical. If Fanny used a King James version (perhaps the most common in 19th Century America?), she would have run across ‘redeem’ 119 times in her study of the Word. In short, redeem means to rescue something at a price. If you can clearly see your life is a mess, perhaps you more readily submit yourself to the Redeemer – a conclusion Fanny might have reached as she lived among the slum-dwellers of Manhattan. And, more than that, don’t be embarrassed to say so. Proclaim it, even in song.

Though Fanny herself must have had issues that needed redeeming, we don’t know specifically what those might have been in 1882. She was human, like me – that’s all I need to know. If I choose to gloss over my shortcomings, I might confuse and trick myself to think I’m OK. Instead, physical reminders can force me to recognize the brokenness of me, of my terminal condition. Fanny had no eyesight (lost when she was an infant), yet a blind woman, who could do what she did, shed light on something her neighbors on Frankfort Street could clearly see in their minds’ eyes. She pointed at Him in all her songs, though she couldn’t physically see Him. Neither can you or I, yet.    

Information on the song was obtained from the books  Amazing Grace – 366 Inspiring Hymn Stories for Daily Devotions, by Kenneth W. Osbeck, 1990, Kregel Publications; The Complete Book of Hymns – Inspiring Stories About 600 Hymns and Praise Songs, by William J. and Ardythe Petersen, 2006, Tyndale House Publishers, Inc.

See biography on composer here:

Thursday, August 14, 2014

I Will Sing of My Redeemer -- Philip Paul Bliss

Did this composer unknowingly write his own epitaph? If you or I were told when and where our last words might be, would we be moved to say what Philip Paul Bliss did when he crafted the words for “I Will Sing of My Redeemer” late in December 1876? (Bliss’ last words were in a ravine in Ashtabula, Ohio – the scene of a train wreck, shown here.) The premature departure from life of one so young, especially one so respected and admired as Bliss was, is often described as tragic, unfair. ‘Compared to what?’, the Christian upon reflection, could say.   In the shock of the moment, even our God, who died in his early 30s, did what some consider almost unthinkable – doubt. Hurt and disappointment often go hand-in-hand with death, so maybe that’s why Bliss was not allowed to know his life passage’s to the next was nearly upon him. Could he have penned the words if he had known it was so close?  

Philip P. Bliss was a 38-year old husband, father or two children, and minister-songwriter. If he had lived beyond December 1876, the list would certainly have grown, including in the last category. Bliss had been engaged in ministry for just a few years, although the music within him had been present much longer. He took singing lessons as a teenager, married soon thereafter into a musical family, and began making music instruction and performance the center of his life’s work. By the late 1860s, he was working with Dwight Moody, and was eventually coaxed to turn his talents toward evangelism. This he did, writing the words and-or composing the music for over 160 songs, including one that he was apparently drafting on a train around Christmastime in 1876, as he and his wife traveled between Pennsylvania and Chicago. The train plunged into a ravine in Ashtabula as the bridge it was crossing failed. Bliss survived the initial accident, but died trying to save his wife who was trapped in the wreck. “I Will Sing of My Redeemer” was found among Bliss’s belongings in the remains of the crash, and was soon put to music (by James McGranahan). Many later remembered that the previous evening Bliss had sung for a crowd “I’m Going Home Tomorrow”, telling them he might never again see them. Chilling, you say?

Philip P. Bliss: 1838-1876. That’s what might most be remembered about him, especially when the story around “I Will Sing…” is told. It’s probably at least some of what is on his gravestone, too.  It’s not about his own death and its consequences that Bliss writes, however. If Bliss did have a premonition on the train or in the few hours or days beforehand, maybe he handled that by composing the words about his Redeemer’s significance, by focusing his view on Him. It’s something that all believers can do -- smother the dread of death by drawing close to His death—tragic above all others, yet overcome by Resurrection. What do those mean in life’s grand scheme to me as I ponder my own passing? Don’t let death catch you by surprise, Bliss might say. You might even say he lived and died that admonition.

Information on the song was also obtained from the books  Amazing Grace – 366 Inspiring Hymn Stories for Daily Devotions, by Kenneth W. Osbeck, 1990, Kregel Publications; and Then Sings My Soul – 150 of the World’s Greatest Hymn Stories, Robert J. Morgan, Thomas Nelson Publishers, 2003.
See also these sites for biographic information on composer:  
For all four verses and refrain, see site here:
For information on the tragedy that took Bliss’ life, see here:

Thursday, August 7, 2014

I Will Sing the Wondrous Story -- Francis Harold Rowley

The words he originally used sound like those of a preacher, a man asking a question of hearers as he considered what convincing words might coax their hearts. (Perhaps not unlike Jesus—see picture of Him here at the His “sermon on the mount”.)   
Francis Harold Rowley must have also spent some time talking with his musical collaborator, Peter Bilhorn, as he thought about the message he wanted to convey in “I Will Sing the Wondrous Story”. What was it that Rowley thought had spoken powerfully to Bilhorn, who had only recently given himself to God? He’d been a minister himself for just eight years, and maybe he’d never been approached with a suggestion to pair words with musical notes in this expressive form before, to articulate what emotionally edgy formula was successful. If it was his only song-poem, what better message to claim as a ‘one-hit wonder’!

He was a 32-year old evangelist in Massachusetts, who was probably feeling the glow of success in the community in that year of 1886. Rowley recounts that there was lots of interest in religious messages, and his cooperation with a recent convert may have underscored for him how open hearers were to what he might say. His musical assistant, Peter Bilhorn, had become a believer just the year before, in 1885, and evidently carried the fire within him to propagate to others what had happened for himself. He had the musical skills, and as he listened to Rowley he decided this fellow had the word skills that would make a new hymn possible. Rowley clearly was motivated, for he produced what Bilhorn needed overnight. His original first line ‘Can’t you sing the wondrous story?’ may have resonated from his imagination as a speaker in the pulpit, as he addressed curious listeners. Try substituting ‘you’ for all the other ‘me’ or ‘I’ pronouns, and indeed it does begin to sound like Francis in the pulpit, trying to persuade you to give in to what your heart might have been whispering. He probably had heard his young friend Bilhorn’s story of confession and conversion, still fresh in his experience. What had compelled Peter to take the faith-step, and would that speak to others? Nothing works like a personal story to capture someone’s attention and begin to make one consider how his life parallels what he’s hearing. As a 21-year old, Bilhorn would have had a youthful zest that communicated well with others. Indeed, Bilhorn went on reportedly to produce some 2,000 songs in his lifetime. And, Francis Rowley would go on evangelizing for over 20 additional years.

Francis Rowley and Peter Bilhorn had two methods, but one message. Two lives intersected to generate a hymn that still exists over 120 years later. If you’re a speaker, see if what you describe matches what a musician nearby is trying to find words to say, and therein might lie the potential for something unique and synergistic. That’s the Rowley-Bilhorn experience. Even so, other hymn-writers might tell you that a lot of what they craft doesn’t persist decades later, making “I Will Sing…” one of the more special accomplishments. What made it endure? Maybe only He knows for certain. Maybe He also knows which ones we’ll be vocalizing, maybe even some of the forgotten ones here in this life, in the next life, maybe? Let’s go find out!       

Information on the song was also obtained from the books  101 Hymn Stories by Kenneth W. Osbeck, Kregel Publications, 1982; and The Complete Book of Hymns – Inspiring Stories About 600 Hymns and Praise Songs, by William J. and Ardythe Petersen, 2006, Tyndale House Publishers, Inc.

Hear the music and read all five original verses here: