So last year I did this thing called “The Twelve Essential Tracks of Christmas,” and people seemed to like it, so I thought I’d add a few more every year. I can’t guarantee there won’t be fewer than or less than twelve more, hence the open-ended title. Anyway, these are more tunes without which my Christmas still really isn’t complete. They were brutally cut out of the final edit for The Twelve. So, consider this the expanded edition.
This installment might be considered cheating, because it’s a threefer. From Amy Grant’s first Christmas album (simply titled A Christmas Album), these three songs are strung together in a continuous sequence: Michael W. Smith’s hit “Emmanuel,” a different take on “O Little Town of Bethlehem,” and a joint collab between him and Amy on a modern “Christmas Hymn.” The editing is so seamless, and all three so good, that I thought, heck, why not just find the gapless version on Youtube, feature that and call it a day? My personal favorite is “Christmas Hymn.” It’s an underrated, beautifully written classic not unlike something the Gettys might craft today.
A note on “Emmanuel”: Every single year we pull this one out, my family and I can’t help noticing its rather embarrassing (awesome? embarrassingly awesome?) similarity to the soundtrack for Ladyhawke. We couldn’t get through a workout to it yesterday without adding a running commentary of quotes from the movie. And if you have no idea what I’m talking about, neither you nor your parents grew up in the 80s. Or if you did, this essential piece of 80s pop culture somehow flew (*cough*) under your radar. Here, let me fix that for you…
Have some more 80s kitsch lurking in the attic of your memory that you can’t quite identify? Call now at 1-800-PLACETHATSYNTH. That’s 1-800-PLACETHATSYNTH. Our operators solemnly swear to spin nothing but Mannheim Steamroller for your Muzak-listening pleasure while on coffee break.
It’s every Baptist’s favorite hymn today! Raise your hand if you’ve hummed along to this one while someone walked up the aisle. Just put it up quietly, nobody’s looking around… yes, I see that hand! Actually, today I must give fair warning: I’m breaking my pattern thus far and selecting an arrangement that pairs the words to a new melody. This is extremely unusual for this series. I can’t think of any other installment currently in the works where I’m planning to do this. However, in this particular case, the new tune really is that good.
The lyrics to this hymn were penned by Charlotte Eliot (1789-1871). In 1897, her nephew thankfully recorded the exact date and inspiration for them. They had their origins in Eliot’s physical sufferings, which as her nephew poignantly put it, “often caused her the peculiar pain of a seeming uselessness in her life while the circle around her was full of unresting service-ableness for God.” One night, she was struggling with an especially acute attack of depression. Her nephew recounts the following morning:
The troubles of the night came back upon her with such force that she felt they must be met and conquered in the grace of God. She gathered up in her soul the great certainties, not of her emotions, but of her salvation: her Lord, his power, his promise. And taking pen and paper from the table she deliberately set down in writing, for her own comfort, ‘the formula of her faith.’
While I was pondering which hymn to feature next, the decision was made for me when one of my favorite men’s quartets recorded the definitive version of it just the other day.
If I were to quote the lyrics of “Be Thou My Vision” as it was originally written, you wouldn’t understand a word of it, because it was originally written as an Old Irish poem. Its exact date and authorship is speculative, and some attribute it to a 6th century saint. However, the woman who translated and versified it in the English form known today was Eleanor Hull, in 1912. There were many more verses in the original Irish than you will hear in a single English version. Among English versions today, you’ll typically hear “the standard four,” but occasionally, a lesser-known verse shows up. Here’s one revived by Revelation Trio (a great version, though not the one I chose for The Definitive):
Be Thou my battle Shield, Sword for the fight;
Be Thou my Dignity, Thou my Delight;
Thou my soul’s Shelter, Thou my high Tower:
Raise Thou me heavenward, O Power of my power.
The tune is very simple and a bit repetitive, which might begin to try the patience if arranged without some variety from verse to verse. I personally find that it doesn’t really get old. The ancient prayer is perfectly translated and fits the tune like a glove. It cuts through all the kitsch and the price tags and the baggage that have glommed themselves onto Christianity over the years and strips everything down to the essential elements: father and son, son and father. Continue reading
With increasingly less time to devote to blogging as the semester marches on, it’s clear that I need to open a category that I can update simply and frequently, which will also be of interest to my readers. To that end, I present The Definitive Hymns: a series in which I look at a favorite hymn of mine, explain a bit of its background, and then showcase my personal favorite version of that hymn. You are encouraged to share your own thoughts on the hymn and favorite version(s) in the comments!
Today, I’m beginning with one of the all-time greats: “There is a Fountain.” Lyrics originally written as a poem by the English hymn-writer William Cowper, music by American Lowell Mason. This hymn has a sad history behind it, but it’s a powerful anthem of redemption.
William Cowper suffered from deep depression for much of his life. In his letters, he wrote that it sometimes took the form of nightmares in which he was dragged away to Hell. Because of his illness, he struggled with the assurance that he was actually saved. When he penned the words to “There is a Fountain” shortly before his death in 1800, they were primarily a reminder to himself of God’s unwavering promise. He never dreamed that it would be embraced by the entire Church for centuries to come. Continue reading
Goooood morning! It’s 0700 and I am waking up to another day of back to school excitement, this semester with an extra dose of crazy thanks to my new (minimum-wage) job as a teaching assistant. But thanks to the Good Morning Vietnam soundtrack, I have a fresh batch of retro tunes to get me out of bed and kick-start my mornings. For those of you who can actually remember when some of these little gems first came out, you are so very welcome. Now if you’ll excuse me, I have a very important caffeinated beverage to go inhale whilst I boogaloo around the kitchen.
Take a listen to the first single from Joseph Habedank’s upcoming solo album! It’s called “Never, No Never.” I’m very tough on new songs, but I can say confidently that if this is representative of the rest of Joseph’s record, I need to get me a copy!
Every now and then, I peek through the fingers covering my eyes long enough to see if there’s any music the kids like today that isn’t completely awful. Recently, I was moderately surprised and pleased to discover the band OneRepublic, and even more interested to learn that front-man and producer Ryan Tedder professes Christianity. Granted, it’s a “Bono Christianity” that gives him no qualms about also producing work for other pop artists who are decidedly opposed to all Christian morality. Still, it’s not every day you see an Oral Roberts grad, raised by Pentecostal missionaries, making mainstream pop music. There’s enough interesting material in Tedder’s career choices and philosophy for his very own Christians in Entertainment post, but that’s for another time.
At any rate, it’s clear that gospel music has influenced OneRepublic’s music. Explaining one of his signature production motifs, Tedder says, “Handclaps, always. Why? Church.” Maddy Easter told me that he and his wife are even thinking of covering one of the band’s recent hits for an upcoming project. Today, I’d like to present their most heavily gospel-infused tune as a “borrowing” candidate for another one of our own more progressive artists. While I don’t care for a whole lot of the band’s work, darned if I can’t stop hitting “replay” on this one. It’s titled “Preacher,” and it’s dedicated to Tedder’s grandfather, whose tough love and wisdom inspired him through his youth. Continue reading
Filed under Borrowing, Songs
In honor of Father’s Day, here’s a special entry in my too-long-neglected “Questions and Answers” series, where we examine two songs that address the human condition from two perspectives—the one without, the other with hope. Today’s topic is fatherhood. To those whose earthly fathers have brought them only pain and fear, what do we as Christians have to offer? What can we say to the person who says “Everyone I ever trusted has let me down”? The answer is that we have a heavenly Father whose word is sure and whose faithfulness endures to all generations. Continue reading
I enjoy browsing the winners of large songwriting contests. It’s always fun to discover brand new talent, and it reveals something about my own musical tastes when a large selection of completely new music is put in front of me. Most recently, I took a listen to some of the musicians who placed in the 2013 International Songwriting Contest. There are certain genres I just avoid altogether (electronica, hip-hop, etc.) and others where the genre isn’t what it used to be (Top 40, adult contemporary). And then, happily, there are the genres where good music is still being made. This year, I kept coming back to the Americana, folk/singer-songwriter, blues and country selections. I guess I prefer music that says something to “music” that exists merely to put a worm in your ear.
The wealth of untapped talent out there is incredible. I laughed and cried over several of the songs that placed in these categories. In several cases, I actually preferred the 2nd or 3rd place finishers to the category winner. Below are some of my favorites. Think of this sampler as a little slice of “coffeehouse cake,” or alternatively, “songs that are too good for radio.”
In 2005, Brian Free took a break from quartet singing and put out what is still one of my favorite solo efforts in southern gospel. Although I’ve never quite wrapped my brain around that other-worldly voice, his ear for a good song was as canny then as it is now. My personal favorite is the fresh, vigorous country rocker “Dare to Be a Daniel” (written by fellow Gold City alumnus Steve Lacey). Other highlights include “Anthem of the Ages,” which BFA could record today like new, and the tune I’m highlighting today, “Taking My God At His Word.” I could hear a number of artists doing this today, including the Perrys, Barry Rowland & Deliverance, Ernie Haase & Signature Sound, and Greater Vision.
I think I would be most excited to hear Chris Allman take a stab at it, but for Ernie to have a go would be great fun too. What do y’all think?