Tonight I rose up with the moon, and looking down from high above,
I saw a world carved and confused into valleys deep in need of love.
And falling down, all thick with grace, Heaven’s cloud of mystery
Was filling every empty space, down to the depth of human need.
— Bebo Norman, “Deeper Still”
In previous years, I’ve posted a hymn or classical piece per day to commemorate Passion week. This year, I decided to do something a little different. So yesterday, I put together a few contemporary songs that, intentionally or not, throw our world’s need for a Savior into sharp relief. In the spirit of my “Questions & Answers” series, I’m sharing six more songs that have been arranged to complement yesterday’s playlist from an explicitly Christian perspective. (Hopefully this will make you do a double take on some of those lyrics!) If you are a Christian and a music fan, I encourage you to try this as an exercise for yourself. It’s good for your musical appreciation and your spiritual health.
The usual suspects are here: Rich Mullins, Steven Curtis Chapman, and a couple of younger upstarts like Audrey Assad and Bebo Norman, whose great lyric for “Deeper Still” is quoted above. I’m particularly moved by how Steven Curtis Chapman’s heart-wrenchingly hopeful song “February 20th” complements Phil Collins’s “Since I Lost You.” (Note that February 20th is not the day Chapman’s daughter died, but the day she accepted Christ. She would die later that same year.)
I am hoping and planning to share more thoughts on some of these, but for now, just be still and enjoy them. And have a blessed Easter.
I’ve featured several hymns in this series, but perhaps none more popular (or more definitively American) than this one. It’s been recorded by everyone from Mahalia Jackson to Alan Jackson. It’s a testament to a song’s classic appeal that it can sound great and timeless no matter what style you sing it in (okay, except for a style calculated to destroy any piece of music it touches, but we’re excluding things like heavy metal here). George Bennard penned the tune in 1912, after a disheartening night of revival preaching. How many ministers of the gospel have been there? This thought should definitely give a lift to anyone who’s hoeing that row!
As usual, my heart is with rich male harmony. So perhaps it’s no surprise that I name a quartet version of “Old Rugged Cross” as the definitive rendition. For fans of Signature Sound, this will be a blast from the past. Before they became household names with Bill Gaither, they worked with Gold City producer Garry Jones. In my opinion, some of the best music they ever did still dates back to this original lineup. “The Old Rugged Cross” shows them at their absolute best. Timmy Duncan’s young bass is featured in all its glory, while Garry’s golden touch on the piano wrings every bit of harmony from the music. The guys take their time with the arrangement, letting each word have its weight. I may be picky, but even I have to admit when something is pure perfection. For me, this arrangement is just that. In this very rare video, thankfully provided by fellow fan Kyle Boreing, you can see them gathered around and honing it with Garry before performing it on stage.
You’ve danced with your spouse to Steven Curtis Chapman’s “I Will Be Here.” You’ve sniffled and reached for the tissues at “Bless the Broken Road.” You’ve sworn to throw random objects at the radio if they spin “I Will Always Love You” one more time. Now Valentine’s Day has rolled around once more, and you’re in the perfect mood to enjoy a romantic musical something. Or maybe not. Either way, I would like to shine a spotlight on five songs that you won’t see on most any Top 100 lists when people rank their favorite ditties about “luuuv.” In fact, I guarantee that half if not all of them will be new to you. Further, I guarantee that they are much deeper and more thought-provoking than what often passes for a love song in today’s cultural milieu. Think of it as my heart-shaped candy gift box to you, dear readers. Go on. Open it up and savor my Top Five Underrated Love Songs.
For those of you who are new to the site or can’t remember the last time I wrote an installment in this series, “Questions and Answers” explores the space where the secular touches the sacred in popular songwriting (emphasis on popular–no weird, obscure stuff here!) It is designed to help Christians think deeply about some of the most thoughtful lyrics that writers on both sides of the divide have contributed to the eternal questions: Why are we here? Who are we? What is love? Do we need to be saved? Can we be saved?
My first entry paired up a Journey song with a Steven Curtis Chapman song. Now, it seems I’m coming full circle, with another Journey song (“Don’t Stop Believin’ “) and another SCC song (“More to This Life”).
I know what you’re probably thinking (at least, if you grew up in the 80s). “Journey? Thoughtful and deep? Seriously?” This song in particular might raise such skeptical eyebrows, given its nauseating ubiquity at graduations, class reunions, and such like. It’s a fixture of American pop culture. There is no escape. (Hey, see what I did there? Escape, escape… okay never mind.) But believe it or not, I am serious. A careful listen to the lyrics apart from its fist-pumping tag will make you wonder how it ever became the go-to feel-good song for teenage America:
Up and down the boulevard
Their shadows searching in the night
Livin’ just to find emotion
Hidin’ somewhere in the night
Read the rest of it in full here, divorced from the music, and you’ll see that Steve Perry’s intended message was a much more tragic, more human one than the culture realized.
Here’s the post I was going to publish this Monday, before the death of Lari Goss shoved it down in urgency.
Last week, the great gospel music legend Andrae Crouch went on to his reward. Overcoming the handicap of severe dyslexia, Crouch wrote many classic songs and also became a sought-after arranger/producer across genres. Perhaps his best-loved song is “The Blood Will Never Lose Its Power,” which he wrote in a white heat of inspiration at the age of 14. Few of us can hope to write one great song in our lives. Practically none of us can claim to have written our greatest before finishing high school. I was fortunate to stumble across this great home video of Crouch sharing with an old friend a little bit about how the song was written. It was taken a few years ago when his voice had already been ravaged by various illnesses, so you might have to prick your ears up to catch what he’s saying:
I greatly enjoyed spending some time with the music of Andrae Crouch over the last weekend, and I thought it only fitting to make a little playlist of some of my favorite versions of some of his best songs. From Andrae himself to Selah, to the Jessy Dixon Singers, to Gordon Mote, to Kim Collingsworth, to Cece Winans, these artists give some definitive renditions.
Another version of “The Blood Will Never Lose Its Power” that I also love is this one, from a Gaither Homecoming. Cece Winans is featured again. I think Selah is still my favorite, but this version had both me and Andrae wondering who was cutting onions in the room.
Christmas Top Fives is a series where I take one beloved carol and run down my personal top five versions of it. Read earlier installments here. Today, I’m covering one of my all-time favorites! I will provide links to four favorite renditions, then embed my absolute favorite here (for ease of loading on slow browsers).
VeggieTales (featuring Palmy): What’s that you say? I already reviewed the album this song comes from last week, even spotlighting this particular track on it? Well, obviously it’s time to spotlight it again! “Gloooo…. woah-oh-oh-oh-oh….woah-oh-oh-oh-ohria” to you too!
Michael W. Smith: Remember when Michael W. Smith was still making exciting, inventive pop music? No, think further back. Think way back to his first Christmas album, released in 1989. Okay, so maybe the vocals could be more polished, but as a producer… I mean this is back when the guy was throwing in everything but the kitchen sink. And it’s totally epic.
The Piano Guys: When the Piano Guys cover something, you know it’s going to be unique, and it’s going to be awesome. This one is no exception. Even though you know the video is just them demonstrating how it was made and not a real live performance, it’s still mesmerizing.
Gabe Scott (instrumental): This gorgeous hammered dulcimer rendition (with a string quartet in the background), is an instrumental interlude on Bebo Norman’s Christmas album From the Realms of Glory. Gabe Scott does the honors, and his lush, lovely take on the carol would put a tear in Rich Mullins’s eye. I just wish it were three times longer.
Billy Gilman: I’m not here to discuss the rest of Billy’s career, but can we agree that this is possibly the best, purest version of “Angels We Have Heard On High” out there?
The last carol revision that came under the Grinch’s eye involved changing ye olde-fashioned grammar to something incorrect in “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen.” Today, the Grinch critiques something that makes him even grumpier: Politically correct revisionism. The carol in this case is “Joy to the World.”
If you pay close attention to the second verse, you might hear the traditional lyric as penned by Isaac Watts: “Joy to the earth, the Lord is come. Let men their songs employ.” But for a number of renditions, you might hear a subtle change. Instead of “Let men their songs employ,” you may hear, “Let all their songs employ,” or perhaps, “Let us our songs employ.” For some hymn-compilers, artists, etc., it’s a knee-jerk reaction to tweak the lyric. I mean, otherwise (*gasp*) the women in the audience might feel left out! We wouldn’t want them to think only the men were being invited to employ their songs!
Of course, this is silliness. “Men” here is simply a natural use of the generic male noun to refer to “the race of man,” that is, human beings. You see boys and girls, before the PC police came along and tweaked everything, people used to refer to “mankind” instead of “humankind” and use the generic “he” without thinking twice about it, because people were educated and understood graceful language. Now, with our new and improved “gender-speak,” well, it’s clunkity-clunk-clunk, look at Frosty go. Continue reading
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 more 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