What is it about the Southern Harmony tunes? There’s something that just gets me about them – they get inside me and speak deeply to my soul.

In a recent episode of Krista Tippett’s On Being with Béla Fleck and Abigail Washburn, two amazing banjo players and musicians, Washburn talks about hearing Doc Watson for the first time. She remarks that although she was studying law in China at the time, that ancient melody played on banjo and sung by Watson revealed the heart and truth of America. Washburn talks about the African roots of the banjo and this music:

“As people were being boarded onto the slave ships, the people said “throw your heart down here; you’re not going to want to carry it to where you’re going.’ A lot of the slave masters figured out that if they had a banjo player on board, playing the music of home, more of the ‘cargo’ would live to the other side. So the origins of the banjo in America are the bitterest of roots … and it formed an amazing origin to what became a blend of traditions from Africa, Scotland, and Ireland, when those banjo players from Africa and the fiddlers from Scotland and Ireland started playing plantation dances together. That’s what started what we know as that early Appalachian and that early American sound. That sound is based in this bitter root but with this hope ‘that I can live – I can survive.’

It is that truth – the bitter root tinged with hope – that appears in the Southern Harmony tunes, I think. And so whatever words we apply to them both benefit from and should contribute to this deep soul truth.

In this case, the lyric gets close, but for me, doesn’t go deep enough.

When the summer sun is shining over golden land and sea,
and the flowers in the hedgerow welcome butterfly and bee;
then my open heart is glowing, full of warmth for everyone,
and I feel an inner beauty which reflects the summer sun.

When the summer clouds of thought bring the long-awaited rain,
and the thirsty soil is moistened and the grass is green again;
then I long for summer sunshine, but I know that clouds and tears
are a part of life’s refreshment, like the rainbow’s hopes and fears.

In the cool of summer evening, when the dancing insects play,
and in garden, street, and meadow linger echoes of the day;
then my heart is full of yearning; hopes and mem’ries flood the whole
of my being, reaching inwards to the corners of my soul.

It’s close – so close – dancing around the edges of meaning, offering a glimpse of some deeper words to come.

And they don’t here. But maybe that’s a good thing in this case. Maybe this hymn is an opening, an invitation to offer the ‘next ten words, and the ten after that’ because our bitter roots tinged with hope need more words and more ideas and more play.

Meanwhile, set to the tune Holy Manna, these words open the door to something deeper, something maybe unnamable.

Like, maybe, truth.

Finally – a hymn about the feminine divine.

I’m not surprised these lyrics are by the Rev. Dr. Kendyl Gibbons – I love her writing and have used her words often in services, including her wonderful piece on the “love is patient, love is kind” passage from I Corinthians 13, which I use in my Share the Love service.

But I digress. Gibbons offers us an image of the feminine divine that is (gasp!) not just motherhood! Halleluiah! The heavens opened and the angels sang, “it’s about freaking time!”

I say this, because over and over we have “mother God” or “mother spirit” or other paeans to women couched in motherhood. I am grateful for the framing of women and the feminine divine in many aspects – include the aspect of justice seeker.

Lady of the seasons’ laughter, in the summer’s warmth be near;
when the winter follows after, teach our spirits not to fear.
Hold us in your steady mercy, Lady of the turning year.

Sister of the evening starlight, in the falling shadows stay
here among us till the far light of tomorrow’s dawning ray.
Hold us in your steady mercy, Lady of the turning day.

Mother of the generations, in whose love all life is worth
everlasting celebrations, bring our labors safe to birth.
Hold us in your steady mercy, Lady of the turning earth.

Goddess of all times’ progression, stand with us when we engage
hands and hearts to end oppression, writing history’s fairer page.
Hold us in your steady mercy, Lady of the turning age.

This hymn works for me today, especially, when I find myself worn down by men, mansplaining, misogyny, and madness. I don’t want to be told how to feel, how things I know already should be, how I shouldn’t make noises or make waves, or just this constant, pervasive insistence that men are more important. I’m worn down. I’m tired. I’m angry. And thus, Gibbons’ call to the Goddess to “stand with us when we engage hands and hearts to end oppression” is a reminder of all the women throughout history who have made a difference in everyone’s lives – and who continue, daily, to answer the call for justice for all, not just women. (Note to self: this would make a great Women’s History Month sermon.)

Two more things, and then I’ll go, because I’m at my sister’s for the holiday and there’s cranberry sauce to be made:

First, the tune. It’s familiar to me, but not because of singing this particular hymn in our congregations. I am fairly certain we sang it a few times in chapel at Union, but I can’t seem to remember what lyrics we used – certainly they were more Christian ones. I was surprised when I picked it up, realizing that while the hymn was unfamiliar, the tune certainly was.

Second, the format: it’s been bugging me that when this publishes to Facebook and email, you get my opening line, and then the lyrics all in an unformatted box. I love having the lyrics at the top for reference, but I think having my words up top is more important, so I’ll try putting the lyrics in the middle of the page. Let me know what you think – it’s not like I don’t still have over a year to tweak this further…

A meta celebration.

When in our music God is glorified,
and adoration leaves no room for pride,
it is as though the whole creation cried Alleluia!

How often, making music, we have found
a new dimension in the world of sound,
as worship moved us to a more profound Alleluia!

So has the church, in liturgy and song,
in faith and love, where centuries of wrong,
borne witness to the truth in every tongue, Alleluia!

Let every instrument be tuned for praise!
Let all rejoice who have a voice to raise!
And may God give us faith to sing always Alleluia!

I don’t know what I expected when I turned the page to this hymn – something with a hint of a justice and compassion hook, maybe…. something to reflect the importance of this day (American presidential election day). What we have is a song about singing.

Totally meta.

And completely appropriate.

There are few things that cut so perfectly through all of the ideologies and theologies as music. There are few things that draw us together into intentional harmony as music. There are few things that vibrate our every essence so completely as music. There are few things that give so pure a voice to our spirit as music.

Music invokes deep memory. Music fills our empty spaces. Music speaks when words cannot. And music is universal – everywhere there is humanity there is music, and while musical styles sometimes feel foreign to us, there are some basic truths about music that cut across culture. I love the example Bobby McFerrin gives in a panel at the World Science Festival in 2009:

It’s amazing how much music brings us together.

And so, on this day which is all about choices, divisions, winners and losers – it’s a joy to be reminded of something that hooks our very souls into that something greater.


The leaf unfurling in the April air,
the newborn child, the loving parents’ care;
these constant, common miracles we share:
Alleluia! Alleluia!

All life is one, a single branching tree,
all pain a part of human misery,
all happiness a gift to you and me:
Alleluia! Alleluia!

The self-same bells for joy and sorrow ring.
No one can know what the next hour will bring.
We cry, we laugh, we mourn, and still we sing:
Alleluia! Alleluia!

While I was waiting for my coffee to brew this morning, I was scrolling through Facebook on my phone, nearly ever post about last night’s presidential debate. I found myself – as is all too frequent these days – feeling a mix of sadness, fear, outrage, and frustration, a hard way to start a day, especially when the feelings are rooted not in personal crisis but in a larger, existential weltschmerz.

As I took my first sip of that miracle brew, I opened the hymnal to today’s entry – and as I read the first lines, I breathed for maybe the first time since I hit the on button on the coffeemaker. I realized what a gift spiritual practice is, for just reading this lyric brought me back to myself, brought me back to the enormity of life, reminded me that particular events – whether happening to just me or to the whole nation – are just blips in the vast grandeur that is life.

Interdependent web indeed.

On a musical note, this is another hymn I am unfamiliar with – it’s got some unexpected intervals that may make more sense with the accompaniment, so it’s not entirely intuitive to sing. However, I want to really learn it, because I would hate for such poetry to go unsung. It also dawns on me that this would be a fine substitution to “We Laugh, We Cry”, which I am honestly quite tired of.

Grateful for this practice this morning. Grateful for music and how it awakens the soul. Grateful for the music makers.

Words by Dan Cohen
Music by John Corrado