Can you remember the hymns you sang at school?
Well, like many people I can. At Highfield Hall Primary in Chesterfield we had the New Life hymn book (ed. John Bailey). As well as quite a few traditional hymns – which I don’t remember ever singing, it had some more contemporary texts that I remember very well. Not all usable now; do you remember “the family of man keeps growing ..”? The book contained plenty of Sydney Carter (I especially liked ‘Catch the bird of heaven…’) and Fred Kaan (including ‘God of concrete, God of steel…’), the lovely “Love is something if you give it away ..” and several Pete Seeger songs. It is depressing to find that it contains the still topical “the people of the Gaza strip once more will suffer pain”. I remember clearly singing “Glad that I live am I” (Lizette Rees) and, I’m pretty certain, “Twenty fags, a jar of ale.” (Jim Stringfellow) – it all seems quite radical when I think of the Head, Mr Carr, who seems in all my other memories of him pretty conservative.
I thought of those hymns when reading through a new collection of hymns from URC minister John Campbell. Songs to Shake Us Up which pairs new texts by Campbell with traditional hymn tunes. There are two CDs accompanying the book one of music recorded for the 15 less well known hymn tunes and one of texts for reproduction in service sheets. Campbell doesn’t make great claims for these 200 texts. Many of them are very specific to a time or for use alongside a particular Scripture text. There are very good indices of Scripture texts, uses, first lines, themes etc. It would be a very good collection to refer to when preparing worship for study days, retreats etc looking for reference to specific biblical texts or according to the lectionary.
I am not a musical expert but the introduction refers to the hymns being pitched lower than usual to make them more easily singable. They do seem to me to be pitched very low – I certainly had trouble playing some of them on my tenor recorder.
As well as traditional multi verse hymns there are a series of one verse hymns to be sung before reading Scripture “Familiar Word, our long time friend and guide / disarm that sense we’ve heard it all before: / speak with fresh strangeness …” is one set here to Woodlands (Tell out my soul …) and I can imagine using it with a retreat group or at a Bible/Lent study group, I have used it at the Office of Readings on a number of occasions when I’ve had people praying with me and it works well as a responsory.
The texts prepared around very specific biblical passages are especially powerful. I had never imagined I would hear the “Rechabites” mentioned in a hymn and confess that I had to look up Jeremiah 35; the Essenes are another unlikely group for singing about. I used one of the hymns about Genesis 18 at my final Mass in St Mary, Lewisham (Ordinary Sunday 17C) – the text set to On Ilkley Moor Baht’At with the wonderful chorus (one for my funeral list perhaps?):
“Then ev’ryone will laugh,with God we’ll surely laugh,and laugh and laugh and laugh!”
But, for my funeral list, I might not be able to resist a second hymn on the same passage “Let us not laugh if our laughing is weary” set to Epiphany (‘Brightest and best …’) ending with this wonderful verse:
“Then let us laugh with the laughter of heaven,share your delight at the friendship we’ve won;hoping, believing and trusting whatever,laugh with a laughter that’s never undone!”
Campbell also deals with many of the darker subjects of our time. There is a powerful text about 9/11 and the first text I have ever seen addressing the sexual abuse of children “Time to end this savage silence”.
There is a hymn for a small, ageing congregation which I can imagine using with a PCC in such a situation or even at an annual meeting. There are also fun texts, texts for children and young people.
Some texts stand firmly in the tradition of metrical psalm or biblical texts and many are very fine indeed, a study group on the Beatitudes could well begin or end each session with “How blessed are those who know they’re poor ..” although I am not sure Dominus Regit Me (The King of Love ..) is the best 87 87 tune for it. There is a brave attempt to create a metrical version of the prologue to John’s Gospel which at first I didn’t like as a text, but sung – as suggested – to Greensleeves becomes a lovely meditation on the original with a stunning final four lines:
“Yet, you our dark embraced,eclipsed by sin, our failure faced,dying, death’s darkness chased,the Word made flesh amongst us!”
This is a book I have returned to over the few months I have owned it. I can see that it is a book I will use for prayer as well as for preparing worship on many occasions. I recommend it highly and am grateful to John Campbell for this tremendous task he has undertaken.
Adapted from my previous blog, first posted in June 2016