Fanny Crosby Meets Ricky Skaggs

I’ve been rotating Blessed Assurance: The New Hymns of Fanny Crosby in the car for a few days, hopefully preparing for a review (one of these days!) But, in case it takes me a little while to get around to that review, here’s the crown jewel of the project: Ricky Skaggs’s haunting folk waltz treatment of a lyric called “All is Well.” Note the subtle metaphor in verse one to Crosby’s blindness: “Though the clouds may veil the sky, my steps are led by your sweet light.” Also, the repeated references to HEARING God’s voice.

To be honest, the rest of the album is just okay by comparison with this, although I did like Ernie Haase & Signature Sound’s “I Have Found a Priceless Treasure.” Part of my problem with some of the other tunes is that they’re very tied to a particular worship sound that’s not going to be current forever. But what Skaggs has done with “All is Well” is timeless. It won’t age. This right here is one of the best new (new/old?) songs of the year, if not the past decade. I’d like to think Fanny would appreciate it:

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Unpublished Hymns of Fanny Crosby to Be Released, Recorded

It’s probably safe to say that Fanny Crosby was the most prolific American hymn-writer, perhaps the most prolific of all hymn-writers. She wrote so many thousands of hymns that her publishers literally couldn’t read them all. I’ve always wondered whatever happened to all those unpublished hymns.

Just recently, I was pointed to a radio podcast that answers my question. Those unpublished hymns were, quite literally, stuffed into a box and forgotten. That box was eventually donated to Wheaton College, where it continued to collect dust and be forgotten.

Until now.

In that broadcast, which you can stream here Nashville producer Bobby Blazier explains the remarkable process whereby these hymns were discovered and have now been set to music by some of the best artists in the industry. But it almost never happened. As Blazier recalls, “They [Wheaton] didn’t know what to do with it. Who cares about Fanny Crosby?” A friend of Blazier’s found out that the box was there and lobbied for permission to get into it. At first, Wheaton discouraged him, saying on the one hand, “They’re fragile, and we wouldn’t want anything to happen to them,” and on the other hand, “Who cares anyway?” which I find amusing.  So his friend undertook the cost of copying every one of the forgotten hymns, then preserving them in print and on a backup drive.

Blazier then took them to Integrity Music, who agreed to publish a compilation album of the poems set to new music. Artists ranging from Michael W. Smith to Ricky Skaggs to southern gospel’s own Ernie Haase & Signature Sound were invited to participate in the project. The Blind Boys of Alabama, appropriately enough, were also among the artists invited to participate, and Blazier describes how moving it was for them to be involved. You can hear preview snippets of them exclusively on the Public Square interview. At around 47:00, they play a minute-long clip of Ricky Skaggs’s contribution, a haunting minor-key setting of one called “All is Well.” I’m already noticing that her signature of including explicit or implied references to sight runs through these unpublished works, as it did through her well-loved standards:

All is well, for thou art near

Gracious Lord, thy voice I hear

Though the clouds may veil the sky

My steps are led by your sweet light

All is well, all is well

For thy peace within me dwells

In your presence, fears dispelled

Loving Savior, all is well

At the very end of the interview (around 53:00), Blazier mentions another poignant discovery from the box: thank-you notes to her publishers, when they would give her a little extra money over and above what was agreed on for her songs. “I will be able to feed so many people with this ten dollars,” one note reads. She was so broke near the end of her life that she and her husband came close to being evicted. But ten dollars would show up on the doorstep, allowing her to pay the rent.

I don’t know about you, but I can’t wait for some of these like-new hymns to bump some worship pabulum off the music rosters of churches everywhere. The album will be released in October, but you can see a track-listing here. Signature Sound will be featured on one called “I Have Found a Priceless Treasure.”

The Enduring Power of Hymns

Much ink has been spilled over the worrying statistical reality that millennials are leaving their parents’ churches, and a lot of them don’t make a return appearance. Mega-church strategists everywhere are no doubt feverishly putting their heads together to figure out how this can still be happening (even after they installed that sick light show and put all their youth pastors in skinny jeans!) Some of these discussions are probably revolving around worship music. Maybe (some of them are still wanly hoping), we can keep tweaking our music formula until it’s so cool our kids will never want to leave, cause they just gotta have their weekly dose of worship band.

Of course, you know and I know that if anything, the mega-church strategists’ fever dreams are part of the problem, not the solution. I propose that this is because with all their bumbling good intentions, they fail to see there’s something fundamentally transient about turning church into a product. They’re hoping to keep kids in church by breathlessly trying to keep up with the latest trends in pop music, culture, etc. But kids don’t need a fad. They need a foundation.

That foundation should take a number of different forms: doctrinal, apologetic, and even musical. One of the most shameful gaps in the foundation for many of our young people is a firm grounding in how to defend their own faith, but that’s a discussion topic for another day. Today, I want to talk about building a musical foundation for our young people. In particular, I want to focus on the enduring power of hymns. 

Continue reading “The Enduring Power of Hymns”