Saturday, September 26, 2015

He Keeps Me Singing – Luther Burgess Bridgers

He wrote five verses to explain what motivated his heart to sing, including two that may suggest some emotional turmoil was at hand. Or, was there another less pressing circumstance that moved Luther Burgess Bridgers to say “He Keeps Me Singing” in the first decade of the 20th Century? What makes a 25-year old Southern minister compose words that say God is whispering to his inner being? Though he was still pretty young, Bridgers’ verses indicate he or someone he knew was experiencing some wide swings in life, from highs to lows. Yet, he knew what his emotional center was, and the destination where he expected it would eventually take him.

Luther Bridgers’ ingredients for his singing biography by 1910 were a family legacy of faith, one that had endured for centuries, as well as his own life’s events, including a tragedy that may have played a central role in his song-poem. His family’s faith history traced backwards some 11 generations to ministry in the English church in the 16th and 17th Centuries, and another L.B., this one Lawrence Bridgers. Luther’s father carried on the family tradition in America, and it’s said that Luther accompanied his father at revival meetings until his death in 1913. So, Luther had a rich family life upon which to draw for his spiritual development. That did not make him immune to challenge, however. The song Luther composed by 1910, particularly verses 2 and 4, tap into his distressed soul, seemingly, as he reveals a ‘wrecked life’ and ‘path…rough and steep’. Was it autobiographical? Some commentators believe it was in fact the words Bridgers scrawled during the aftermath of a great trial – his young wife’s and three sons’ deaths in a fire. Though another source casts doubt on the plausibility of this scenario – the fire may in fact have been a year after the song was written—his words indicate the pain he felt at the time. But, he wasn’t overwhelmed, nor did he wallow.  But, his verses do suggest he swung back and forth, as someone struggling with a great confusion might. Verses 1, 3, and 5 – upbeat, content-- are intermingled with valleys of torment in verse 2 and 4. Sounds like Psalms, doesn’t it?

What did Luther think of his song after his family had been killed? Was he singing, though desperately confounded, maybe angry as anyone might who's abruptly lost so much? It’s amazing, if in fact the song was written in this way. Luther becomes a 20th Century Job, a blameless, God-fearing hero, unfairly robbed by life’s cruelty. On the other hand, Luther may have been giving voice to others’ tragic circumstances, or thinking of his future that he expected to contain difficult episodes. In any case, Luther wanted to sing through them. ‘How?’, someone mutters. This 25-year old guy proposed one way in 1910, but it wasn’t novel. There was another fellow (William Congreve, The Mourning Bride) who said ‘Music has charms to soothe a savage breast’ in 1697, but it probably wasn’t novel with him either. Got a guess where they learned this therapy? Who invented music? Same answer.        

Sources for the song story are the book “The Complete Book of Hymns – Inspiring Stories About 600 Hymns and Praise Songs”, by William J. and Ardythe Petersen, 2006; and the following websites:

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