A while back, I ran across some new hymns by progressive southern gospel songwriting regular Lee Black. He commented that it was hard to get them cut, but he saw no harm in performing them himself and putting them out there on Youtube. The first two were co-written with Gina Boe, another sought-after contributor to your favorite artists’ catalogues:
That Death May Die:
Any of these new songs would be a classy and welcome addition to a church service. It goes without saying that they’re infinitely more intricate and contentful than the incoherent, monotonic dreck Jesus Culture is churning out (or whoever the kids are listening to, I don’t keep track to be honest). In fact, melodically I would say they’re even more interesting than “In Christ Alone.” So for well-written, yet accessible new church music, this is any worship pastor’s ideal. However, the songwriting purist in me can’t help wondering whether they could be improved in one respect: rhyme scheme.
The problem is an over-saturation of “assonance,” a technique that combines two words which share nothing in common except the middle vowel sound. In these songs, they frequently replace end-rhymes, although not quite completely, which creates a bit of poetic whiplash. For example, it took me a minute to even identify the pattern in “All Glory to You, Jesus.” It was only after looking at the Verse 2 lines, “For that lonely hill where you tasted death/And the pardon breathed with your dying breath,” that I realized these two lines in Verse 1 were supposed to “rhyme”: “For that humble place where you laid your head/On that holy night when you took on flesh.” And in “The Light and the Glory,” what appears to be an “abab” scheme is established in verse 1, but then every other “b” couplet attempts to rhyme words like “saves” and “change,” “soul” and “own,” and “wave” and “grace.” Almost none of the “a” couplets rhyme either save for one. “That Death May Die” is somewhat less spotty, but we still get “life” and “die,” “alive” and “die,” etc.
Now, I’ve relaxed my sensitivities to some extent when it comes to perfect rhymes in song. But even if I shrug away putting a singular with a plural, or coupling “-an” and “-and” (where the “d” falls quietly enough that it’s not too disruptive when sung), the likes of “head” and “flesh” are much tougher to reconcile. And all of this is particularly problematic in what is ostensibly a hymn lyric, because a hymn lyric isn’t just another song. It’s a very specific song form.
You see, song lyrics are like poetry. If you just sit down to write any old poem, you’re not bound by any particular constraint of form. But when you write, say, a sonnet, you need to follow a very specific set of rules, or it’s not really a sonnet. The hymn form, also part of the classic tradition of English poetry, is built on end-rhyme. So in English literary terms, completely replacing rhyme with assonance in the hymn form is a very recent development. It leaves a “21st century thumbprint” which makes it instantly distinguishable from vintage pieces in the hymnbook. It arises from a contemporary habit of viewing assonance as “another kind of rhyme.” (For example, I watched a songwriters’ brainstorming session where they were looking for “-ar rhymes” and put out “heart,” among other ideas.) This is technically wrong. It’s much more akin to alliteration, where words beginning with the same consonant are pleasingly strung together. While assonance does commonly replace end-rhymes in French or Spanish poetry, in the English tradition it is more often used to create an extra flavor within a line. Here’s an example of internal assonance in Wordsworth, from a poem I’ve always hated, but it suits our purposes:
I wandered lonely as a cloud
That floats on high o‘er vales and hills,
When all at once I saw a crowd,
A host, of golden daffodils;
Beside the lake, beneath the trees,
Fluttering and dancing in the breeze…
Black and Boe are hardly alone in their reliance on assonance, as the Gettys and other modern hymn-writers use this technique quite a lot too. (I often joke that the lines “In Christ alone who took on flesh, fullness of God in helpless babe/This gift of love and righteousness, scorned by the ones he came to save” would rhyme… if I had a cold.) Yet I refuse to believe that veteran writers like these are unable to write a hymn in the old-fashioned way. It’s not like the modern man has lost the ability to rhyme exactly. Contemporary Christian folk writer Andrew Peterson relies almost exclusively on exact rhymes, as did influences of his like Rich Mullins, Paul Simon and Marc Cohn. Now I realize we can’t all be Rich Mullins, Paul Simon or Marc Cohn. No serious songwriter can deny that all those guys had a little extra something in the lyrics department. (Check out Cohn’s “Silver Thunderbird” for a particularly stellar example. And don’t get me started on Jimmy Webb—another day…) But I bring all these guys up because they prove that tightly crafted poetry in song, even popular song, shouldn’t be regarded as a thing of the distant past. Perhaps it would help if we began to sit down with our hymns and read through them as poems, not merely songs.
My point is that successful commercial writers are understandably used to allowing themselves the freedom of assonance for greater flexibility and broader appeal in their work. But it seems to me that when any songwriter sits down to pen something in a particular form, like a hymn, it should be accessible yes, but it should also follow the form—ideally, so that someone could even mistake it for a Watts, or Wesley, or Crosby-era piece. If those guys could churn out thousands upon thousands of perfectly rhymed hymns, surely a gifted contemporary writer can get through at least a few original contributions without having to fall back on assonance. If nothing else, it’s just plain good poetic exercise. And it’s fun! There’s a certain thrill that comes in meeting the challenges we humans set for ourselves, be it baseball, pole-vaulting, or writing poetry that touches people, follows a certain rhythmic pattern, and rhymes.
So, is it worth the extra effort to limit ourselves to perfect rhymes when carrying on the legacy of the grand old hymns? For tradition’s sake, for the sake of keeping our own poetic muscles in shape, and just for the sheer joy of it, I humbly submit that it is.