Saturday, July 20, 2019

Go Tell It On the Mountain -- John Wesley Work, Jr.


This song’s familiar refrain must have been in his ears for a number of years, before he decided to add some verses to complete the Christmas-time theme. John Wesley Work, Jr. was probably in or near his Nashville, Tennessee home, perhaps with his wife Agnes and his brother Frederick in close proximity, when he penned the words with the refrain’s title theme “Go Tell It On the Mountain” as a song that would be published by 1907. He also must have had in mind a group with whom worked at the university  where he taught when the words came to John, because they could help spread the sound of this song, an objective that seemed to fit perfectly with the song’s message. Who had invented the original words of this old spiritual ‘Go Tell It…’ is a mystery that will await us in another time.

Work may also have been near or at Fisk University in Nashville when he contemplated penning the words to ‘Go Tell It…’ in the late 1800s or early 1900s. Fisk was where he spent a great deal of time, after all, as a student of Latin and history and subsequently as a professor of  the same subjects (other sources alternately indicate he taught Greek). He also directed the Fisk Jubilee Singers and toured with them annually, a forum that gave his musical creations voice. In a similar vein, John also apparently directed a church chorus. John and Frederick and Agnes, as well as others the Works encountered, made it their mission to collect and keep alive the negro spiritual music that they’d heard for decades in the Appalachian region, such that the Work brothers eventually published two collections in 1901 and 1907, the second of which included ‘Go Tell It…’. The verses that John added to the well-known chorus expanded on the thoughts that the anonymous originator had crafted, relating the Christmas story’s scenes from the perspective of the shepherds. These shepherds saw, heard, and then visited the God-inspired events in the fields and at His birthplace, Work reminds us. John and Agnes may have had at least some of their six children by the time, perhaps during one of their family’s Christmas celebrations, that John decided to complement the negro spiritual he’d heard for so long with his three verses. Were his wife and children some of the first to hear this Christmas poetry? It’s likely that the church chorus, which included some of the Fisk singers, also had ears for John’s invention. The song quite plausibly made its way into the hills and valleys of the region as the group conducted one of its annual singing trips before it was actually in print.  

‘Go Tell It On the Mountain’ was something that John must have heard or said himself thousands of times, perhaps on occasion pondering its creator and his or her story. John and his family were at least one generation removed from the one who actually first sang the original words, someone who might have been enslaved, yet found a reason to shout joyfully. Like many of the spirituals of the period, which emerged from people whom logic might say should be complaining, ‘Go Tell It…’ refocuses one’s life upon the miraculous instead. Is life unfair, even miserable? That’s what a slave might have more logically vocalized. Perhaps John had re-discovered that logic has nothing to do with Him and His appearance.    
   
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; and Amazing Grace: 366 Inspiring Hymn Stories for Daily Devotions by Kenneth W. Osbeck, Kregel Publications, 1990.

See brief biography on the composer here: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/John_Wesley_Work_Jr.

Also see this link, showing all three original verses: http://www.hymntime.com/tch/htm/g/o/t/gotitotm.htm

Saturday, July 13, 2019

Battle Hymn of the Republic -- Julia Ward Howe


Passion. If ever there was a hymn attached to one emotion, “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” could probably meet that standard. Julia Ward Howe knew this too when she considered writing her verses (eventually six), because the U.S. Civil War was in full view, and no one at the time had a neutral perspective on its merits or the desired outcome. It was late 1861, and Julia and some travelling companions to observe Union troops near Washington heard something that was the spark for what she would write in the middle of the night, as the scenes and the sounds that she’d witnessed and the broader vision of God’s purpose among humanity coalesced in her mind. (The scene here is a depiction of the Antietam battle, which was the most passionate, bloody one day [September 17, 1862] of the war.) Do the song’s words and tune stir you as you hear it today? It’s no accident, as the background and the continuing use of this great hymn since its inception have added to the underlying meaning it has for us.

The Battle Hymn’s predecessor tunes and the way the words have been used since Julia Howe wrote them have a rich history that expose fissures and conflicts in American history, far beyond this blogger’s ability to describe. So, I have only a few signposts to underscore, and a very fine book (see it referenced below in the notes section) by two scholars and co-writers John Stauffer and Benjamin Soskis to recommend that tell the story of this hymn completely. Here’s some key words you’ll bump into as you read, regarding other tunes that preceded Julia’s composition: “Oh Brothers”, and “John Brown’s Body”. Especially the latter possesses a fanaticism about the social order that helped push the nation into war. The other was a folk tune used in religious camp meetings. Julia was attempting to add a respectability to the hymn with better words for Union troops, but that hasn’t meant the feelings surrounding the social issues in the Civil War and the episodes for over 100 years since that time have been coolly debated. She must have sensed that too, with words about seeing the ‘glory of the Lord’, a‘terrible swift sword’, and ‘fateful lightning’, all in just verse 1 (!), that throw fuel upon the flame of emotions for those who employ this song. Many socio-cultural, political, racial, and other themes (including mobilization for war in the 21st Century, as in Julia’s 19th Century) have played out with the Battle Hymn engineered to whatever purpose the spearheads of these movements have sought to further. 

Enough said from this corner…   

   
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; Amazing Grace: 366 Inspiring Hymn Stories for Daily Devotions by Kenneth W. Osbeck, Kregel Publications, 1990; 101 Hymn Stories, by Kenneth W. Osbeck, Kregel Publications, 1982; Then Sings My Soul – 150 of the World’s Greatest Hymn Stories, Robert J. Morgan, Thomas Nelson Publishers, 2003; and A Treasury of Hymn Stories – Brief Biographies of 120 Hymnwriters with Their Best Hymns, by Amos R. Wells, Baker Book House Company, 1945.

Also, see the very extensive history of the song in the book The Battle Hymn of the Republic --  A Biography of the Song that Marches On, by John Stauffer and Benjamin Soskis, Oxford University Press, 2013.

Also see this link, showing all six original verses: http://www.hymntime.com/tch/htm/b/a/t/batthymn.htm

Also see this site for song information: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Battle_Hymn_of_the_Republic

Saturday, July 6, 2019

Angels from the Realms of Glory -- James Montgomery


He was a poet and sometimes a controversial editor, a one-time wanderer and orphan, a missionary supporter and humanitarian. James Montgomery might have been called all of these names, but at the heart of his character was the Christian hymns he authored, including “Angels from the Realms of Glory” that he composed for a Christmas edition of the newspaper that had become his life’s work in the early 19th Century. This 45-year old native Scot had found his purpose in the central England area of Sheffield, where he published this well-known Christmas carol in 1816. What in particular moved James to compose his seven verses at Christmas time that year?

From the life he had lived and the verses he penned, we can easily surmise the James Montgomery believed in the Christmas story and was re-reading the account of it in Luke as the time for noel approached in 1816. His verses show he was paying homage to the Messiah as He entered earth’s realm (v.1,2), being at once the Desire (v.3), and Lord (v.4), and infant (v.6), and Divine Son (v.7). Luke’s story line compelled James, and so he wrote with all these ancient characters’ perspectives in view. All have one thing in common – to worship Him. The angels, the shepherds, the sages (wise men), the saints, and indeed all of us in humanity – nations, creation, and even sinners, as James calls them out – can look to Him. Whatever angle from which you come to God, it doesn’t matter, James' poetry suggests. He himself must have seen his own existence up until his 45th year as somewhat varied, yet bended toward the God he served in all the roles he played. It must have been in no small measure due to the early life in which he found himself orphaned, yet nurtured in spite of his parents’ death. At the time of his penning “Angels from the Realms…”, James had been editor of the Sheffield Iris (formerly known as the Sheffield Register) for over 20 years, following an uncertain beginning to his life’s calling. Though his first efforts beyond school failed, including two stints in merchandise businesses through which he wandered briefly during his teenage years, his parents’ commitment to the Moravian traditions of missionary work (they would perish in the missionary field), music, and a personal devotion to one’s God must have touched Montgomery at a deep level. While he did not finish his schooling at the Moravian School where his parents left him upon their departure for mission work in the West Indies, he pursued the life of a poet and would compose the texts to some 400 hymns over his lifetime. This was in addition to the newspaper editorship at Sheffield for 31 years, a forum that he used for promoting humanitarian efforts in which he believed – some of them politically risky, imprisoning him twice -- among them abolition of slavery. His personal devotion to Christian principles also drew him to publicly support foreign missions and a bible society, undoubtedly a reflection of his parents’ influence early in his life.             

The poetry that flowed from James Montgomery’s hand in 1816 was not surprising, but no less significant because it was predictable. He kept alive the Christian faith in his era by holding fast to what he believed and publishing works that his contemporaries could acknowledge. He wrote a poem because he was a writer. And, it was a recitation of the ancient Christian story because it was what he believed. He had the gift to write, and the beliefs that moved his gift into a tangible result. James might say that I need to marry my gifts with my beliefs, and see what can happen.     

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; Amazing Grace: 366 Inspiring Hymn Stories for Daily Devotions by Kenneth W. Osbeck, Kregel Publications, 1990; 101 Hymn Stories, by Kenneth W. Osbeck, Kregel Publications, 1982; and Then Sings My Soul – 150 of the World’s Greatest Hymn Stories, Robert J. Morgan, Thomas Nelson Publishers, 2003.

Also see this link, showing all seven original verses: http://www.hymntime.com/tch/htm/a/f/r/afrglory.htm  
Also see these sites for author information: http://www.hymntime.com/tch/bio/m/o/n/t/montgomery_j.htm
See the link here for the theological background of the author: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Moravian_Church