Sunday, December 4, 2011

The Old Hymns

Having never been a church goer, I never sang any hymns until becoming a hospice volunteer six or seven years ago. When I'm asked to sing hymns, it's nearly always the old hymns, many of which have been dropped from the newer hymnals (and never were in the Episcopal hymnal, with which I had a little experience as a young child).

Some of the hymns I'm talking about are "Sweet Hour of Prayer", "The Old Rugged Cross", "In The Garden", "What A Friend We Have In Jesus", "The Church In The Wildwood", "Trust and Obey", and "Pass Me Not, O Gentle Savior".

I've put these and others in flat keys for our group, and usually down a step or three to make them easier for people to sing. Every time we do them, a few people come up afterwards and fervently thank us for performing them and telling us they never hear them any more and that they mean a great deal to them.

As a therapist these hymns strike me somewhat as the service tunes and patriotic songs the community band plays on Memorial and Veterans Day. Through a lifetime of association, hearing them triggers an emotional reaction in some audience members that can never be matched by something they've not heard before. 

I can understand how church musicians and ministers want to always be exploring new material, but as a therapist these old hymns are a wonderful way to create therapeutic moments for people that grew up with them.


  1. Some years ago, when I was living and working in the south of France, I was in a small brass group made up of members of the British and American community there.

    One of the highlights of the year was that we would play Christmas carols outside the local English language bookshop in the two weekends prior to Christmas, using Salvation Army band books which one member of the group owned.

    Because British christmas music is not heard all that often in France, all the Brits nearby would gather rounds and really enjoy hearing some familiar tunes that remimnded them of their childhood.

    The French don't have a tradition of collecting for charity on the streets at Christmas in the way we do in Britain, but one member of the group got hold of some collecting tins for the French Red Cross and we collected a good batch of money, the equivalent of several hundred dollars.

  2. Jonathan -

    What a great story, and another example of a way music can be representative of something beyond just the music as music. There must be a better word, but music as talisman is the best I can come up with, as a talisman is something that gains its power (magic) by association (various rites) and becomes a small marker for a much broader experience.

    Kyle Gann just did a post on how maybe music should be critiqued by how we react to it, rather than analyzing the music itself. That might be a good way to go with new music, but anything that's been around a while is going to have various associations for various people and things are going to get messy.

    On a side note - I backpacked through that area back in 1976 and it's wonderful to be reminded of it. It really is a special place.

  3. I agree. Our church has started going back toward the older hymns also.