Oh, the hymns you will sing

Timothy O’Toole has a column in today’s Albany Union-Times on the abundance and diversity of church music.

Church music is limitless. Throughout America, sanctuaries resonate with the sound of the classics (Mozart and the 3 B’s — Bach, Brahms and Beethoven), Gregorian chant and plainsong, jazz (Duke Ellington’s “Come Sunday”), folk (Michael and his boat that never quite makes it to shore), and ethnic melodies from Africa, Asia and South America (best sung in the original language). Even the predictable two-dimensional “praise music,” which enlists drums, mikes and electric guitars — in keeping with John Wesley’s 1761 instruction “Sing lustily and with good courage.”

I am reminded of Harvard psychologist William James’ 1902 book, “The Varieties of Religious Experience.” Just as there are different ways of experiencing the divine in our daily existence, there are different ways of raising our voices in song, and opening our ears and minds to inspiration.

Most hymnals have work derived from European sources, but America is blessed with an exceptional variety of home-grown music. Drawing from Charles Wesley’s English experience, what was once secular can become sacred with a few lyric modifications. In 1882, Salvation Army founder William Booth wondered, “Why should the devil have all the best tunes?” To which we Presbyterians might add, “Why do the Methodists have all the best hymns?” Need gender-neutral lyrics? Call Brian Wren, an Englishman who now lives in New Hampshire and specializes in non-sexist imagery.

We resonate to William Billings’ energetic New England hymns; the raucous, nasal sound of Sacred Harp and shape note singers, cousins of Southern harmony, spirituals and gospel; even bluegrass renditions with their own bittersweet quality.

Read it all here.

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