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:

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