A good number of good people showed up on Christmas morning for a communion service and carols. We led the singing with a guitar and accordion (Joy to the World, Love Came Down at Christmas, Go Tell it on the Mountain, What Child is This). For a couple of the great carols we ditched the instruments and relied on the voices of the 50+ people present. I introduced Hark the Herald Angels Sing with these words, "We are going to sing this carol the way our forbears sang it. We will use the sacred harp--our voices." The work from the carol singing school really paid off: we heard four-part harmonies coming from the congregation. For the closing carol we had the two sides of the sanctuary stand and face each other as we sang O Come All Ye Faithful.
It seemed that no sooner was Christmas over than we were preparing music for New Year's day which fell on the following Sunday. As usual we chose music which spoke to the theme of the service, was singable for the congregation and was playable for the musicians. Red Team's lineup changes frequently -- this Sunday we had two guitars, two fiddles and piano/accordion.
This question of "singabilty" is at the heart of a recent (somewhat grumpy) reaction to the poor state of congregational singing by Grove City professor T. David Gordon. Gordon summarizes his book Why Johnny Can't Sing Hymns (P&R Publishing, 2010):
I attempt to locate some of the cultural forces that have caused hymns to sound so foreign to this generation that they feel they need to replace them with something contemporary. I also express misgivings about this circumstance.Gordon argues that our immersion in pop muzak means that the average person doesn't recognize other forms of music as good music. I am not sure I agree with this thesis. In an article in Christianity Today, composer Lawrence R. Mumford points out that "the simple truth is that our culture has not eliminated all other styles. . . the pop song genre is certainly not the only music that any churchgoer hears, absorbs, or even enjoys between weekend services." Mumford points to symphonic film scores and even computer game soundtracks as one counter example.
But even if I don't buy Gordon's thesis, he make some interesting and useful observations along the way--particularly on the need for church music to be singable. Here is an excerpt from a recent interview he gave in Christianity Today.
Sacred music has special demands beyond aesthetic demands. Some musicologists argue that hymnody is actually a subcategory of folk music—distinguished from classical music because classical music is performance music, beyond the capacity of the average person to produce. But folk music, by name, suggests music produced by the people. It's the way a people join their heritage, and it's participatory in its very nature. Therefore, I don't think hymns should strive to compete with Brahms's Ein deutsches Requiem or the solos in Handel's Messiah, because a congregation wouldn't be able to sing them. A hymn shouldn't be beyond the capacities of a good, intelligent church to sing. Now, some people are willing to work at singing well, and others …I like the idea of thinking of congregational singing as "a subcategory of folk music"-- music written by the congregation for the congregation to sing. It keeps the focus on the activity of congregational singing and allows us to avoid arguments over the relative value of particular genres of music and lyric writing. Congregational singing as a type of folk music allows us to value the old traditions while at the same time pointing a way forward to discover and create new traditions: traditions which enable God's people to sing God's praise. It avoids the creation of hegemonic church music cultures, it embraces all the musical gifts and preferences of a congregation, and it offers a simple standard to aspire to and measure one's efforts against: can the congregation sing the music we are playing and are the songs a testimony of our faith?
Like me? Those who can't read music but enjoy singing hymns?
Hymns should be easy enough to learn for people who do not read music, so people can pick up the melody quickly. When I was a young child and we'd take drives, the family would sing folk music or hymns. If Mom or Dad started singing "Fairest Lord Jesus," we sang along, and before long we were harmonizing. And we couldn't read music. Hymns aren't too difficult to sing; most of them are easier to sing than the contemporary stuff.
I find it ironic that if I'm attending a blended service, the hymns will have the full musical score, though they don't need it, while the contemporary stuff, which is unfathomable without the musical score, doesn't have it. It's just lyrics up on the screen.
Many would disagree, saying modern tunes are easy to catch on to.
They are not really easier to learn than hymns (unless they are profoundly simplistic). They seem easier to some people whose sensibilities have difficulty with anything that is not pop. But musically speaking, they are not, as a genre, substantially easier; they just sound more familiar to our culture. When people describe them as "easy," what they mean is "familiar-sounding."
Here are a couple of examples of the subcategory of folk music Red Team dished up this Sunday (click on the links to listen):
Hail to the Lord's Anointed is straight out of the hymnal. Libby arranged the rocking strings. It could probably stand to be a little slower.
Now Let Us From this Table Rise is a Red Team favorite. We took this Methodist post-communion hymn and joined it to the rollicking SUSSEX CAROL. In doing so we needed to find a refrain, and so we took some lines from the doxology. The foot stomping gets a little out of hand on this one (my right foot of praise is joined by Adam Baker and Jacob Slade's (aged 5) feet). By the last verse we sound like a staggering bunch of dutchman in clogs. . . but the congregation is singing and no one used microphones!