Programming Note: Look for a short Hymn by Hymn Extra later today.

Last night, I attended a concert, honoring 50 years of folk  music at the Eighth Step in Schenectady, NY. The show was – if you’re into regional and national folk – rather a star-studded event: Reggie Harris, Annie and the Crackpots, Brother Sun, and Holly Near. Over and over again, we heard not just great music but about how strong the folk community is and how places like Eighth Step and Café Lena, along with festivals like Old Songs, really make a difference in bringing people together. Over and over again, the people in the audience were recognized as being integral to the power of this music, that folk is a collaborative event between performer and listener, and how we all bring gifts to the moment to create something sacred.

And then I turn to today’s hymn, a short piece with lyrics by Methodist-turned-Unitarian minister Horace Westwood, set to a very square yet surprisingly moving tune (Hamburg). “We bring ourselves as gifts”… Yes. Yes.

Spirit of truth, of life, of power,
we bring ourselves as gifts to thee:
oh, bind our hearts this sacred hour
in faith and hope and charity.

It reminds me of discussions we have sometimes about the three elements of stewardship: time, talent, and treasure. We get treasure and talent pretty easily, but time is harder to suss out. I think this hymn is about the giving of our time, because it is about the giving of our whole selves in that moment, that ‘sacred hour.’ Just as the attendees and the performers and the tech crew and the volunteers all gave of their whole selves for those two sacred hours last night, we can give the same to our sacred gatherings.

May we always remember we are a gift, and we bring ourselves together as gifts to one another.

 

I was about to write something quick about this quick little song, and then go on with my day.

I was going to write something like “how sweet and familiar this is” and something else about how some congregations accept the offering by singing this.

And then I was going to add a quick note about the composers, Joseph and Nathan Segal, and be done with it.

Until I started learning more. And found not only a heartbreaking story but also something interesting about the version we sing.

First, the heartbreak: the Segal brothers are rabbis – singing rabbis, in fact – who trace their lineage as singing rabbis back 12 generations. They performed a spiritual and often humorous show for decades, until a car accident in Jamaica in 1988 left Joseph critically injured; eight years after the accident, it was news that he would join his brother Nathan at the congregation Nathan served. Since then, it appears Nathan has continued his work as a spiritual leader, healer, and musician – sadly, nothing on his website says anything about Joseph other than providing MP3s of the songs they recorded together. In fact, along with those recordings, there is just one video of them together from a concert they did in Woodstock in the late 1960s.

But it was from watching a clip from that where I learned we aren’t singing the song correctly. Listening to the MP3 reveals the same. Now I suspect the hymnal commission didn’t have benefit of these recordings at the time and learned the song by rote, but it’s interesting that not only do we have a different version, but apparently Nathan himself sang it differently over time, based on a later solo recording.

From you I receive,
to you I give,
together we share,
and from this we live.

So this brings up the question around folk music: is it necessary to sing it in an original fashion, or is it okay to change it as we learn it? I think about the Facebook discussion around The Earth, Water, Fire, Air – a song that many of us learned very differently yet seems to be connected to the same origins as the one in our hymnal. Is it the same song? Different now because of the changes? Is it like languages that have the same root but a thousand years goes by and suddenly the guy from Paris can’t understand the gal from Barcelona?

I don’t know. But I’d like to relearn the song in 4/4 time with a different final phrase and see what happens.

Art by Nathan Segal.

One of the blessings of my seminary experience was getting to know the remarkable singer and scholar Kim Harris; she was finishing her PhD while I was getting my MDiv. She became a friend and confidant, a mom when I was going through the worst of my heart troubles, a singing partner, and at least once formally, my teacher.

That semester, she taught a class on Spirituals; the class wasn’t just about the history, however; it was also about using the spirituals to deepen our own spirituality. By chance, the group was entirely women, a perfect mix of ages, sexual identities, and racial identities. We learned together,  and we sang together, and often our singing was a prayer together.

This song, with its original words “Come By Here” was particularly meaningful, as Kim tossed aside the whole “kumbayah” mythos and modern meaning and brought us back to the deep, mournful hope of this song. We prayed this more than once as a group, hands on each other’s shoulders, tears rolling, connections to ourselves, each other, and the Divine made real.

I almost hesitate to keep the “kumbayah” lyric in here, except it is in our hymnal and I can’t deny its existence.  But after the lyrics, I’ll share an excerpt from a 2010 New York Times article that talks more about the song and how it got corrupted.

Kum ba yah, my Lord, kum ba yah.
Kum ba yah, my Lord, kum ba yah.
Kum ba yah, my Lord, kum ba yah.
Oh, Lord, kum ba yah!

Someone’s singing, Lord…

Someone’s laughing, Lord….

Someone’s weeping, Lord…

Someone’s praying, Lord …

Kum ba yah, my Lord …

This article sprang up because “kumbayah” had made its way into the political discourse, but it’s been in the pop culture discourse for a few decades. It’s worth reading the whole thing, but I feel it necessary to share this bit:

“Come By Here” in its original hands appealed for divine intervention on behalf of the oppressed. The people who were “crying, my Lord” were blacks suffering under the Jim Crow regime of lynch mobs and sharecropping. While the song may have originated in the Georgia Sea Islands, by the late 1930s, folklorists had made recordings as far afield as Lubbock, Tex., and the Florida women’s penitentiary.

With the emergence of the civil rights movement in the 1950s, “Come By Here” went from being an implicit expression of black liberation theology to an explicit one. The Folkways album “Freedom Songs” contains an emblematic version — deep, rolling, implacable — sung by the congregation at Zion Methodist Church in Marion., Ala., soon after the Selma march in March 1965.

The mixed blessing of the movement was to introduce “Come By Here” to sympathetic whites who straddled the line between folk music and progressive politics. The Weavers, Peter Seeger, the Folksmiths, Joan Baez and Peter, Paul and Mary all recorded versions of the song.

By the late 1950s, though, it was being called “Kumbaya.” Mr. Seeger, in liner notes to a 1959 album, claimed that America missionaries had brought “Come By Here” to Angola and it had returned retitled with an African word.

Experts like Stephen P. Winick of the Library of Congress say that it is likely that the song traveled to Africa with missionaries, as many other spirituals did, but that no scholar has ever found an indigenous word “kumbaya” with a relevant meaning. More likely, experts suggest, is that in the Gullah patois of blacks on the Georgia coast, “Come By Here” sounded like “Kumbaya” to white ears.

So a nonsense word with vaguely African connotations replaced a specific, prayerful appeal. And, thanks to songbooks, records and the hootenanny boom, the black Christian petition for balm and righteousness became supplanted by a campfire paean to brotherhood.

“The song in white hands was never grounded in faith,” Professor Hinson said. “Its words were simplistic; its tune was breezy. And it was simplistically dismissed.”

Go read the whole thing… and please, use this song with care.

Kim and Reggie came to the Keys while I was doing my internship; we took a photo together at this great place for Cuban sandwiches.

Lovely Update Below!

Things I don’t know:

I don’t know composer and colleague Mary Grigolia, although I feel like I should.

I don’t know when I learned this, but it was sometime between the Louisville General Assembly (summer 2013) and the Florida Chapter UUMA retreat (spring 2015).

I don’t know why I never heard it or sang it before then, because everyone else seems to have this in their bones.

I don’t really know what it means.

I know this rose will open.
I know my fear will burn away.
I know my soul will unfurl its wings.
I know this rose will open.

Honestly. Maybe it’s the gloom of a stormy autumn morning, or the restless sleep, or the metaphorical neurons taking a holiday, but I’m really not sure what this is about. There’s an unspoken ‘when x happens’ at the end of each lines and I am unclear what the next part of that sentence is.

It’s a gorgeous piece, made more gorgeous by gentle improvisation that comes from sitting around a circle with Jason Shelton and Amy Carol Webb on a quiet evening.

But I’m finding it lyrically baffling.

And I think that’s okay.

October 31: Jed Levine introduced me to Mary Grigolia shortly after reading this post and in our exchanges she lovingly shared the origin of this song with me:

I wrote this song when I was in seminary, taking a class on death and dying. Our assignment was to write our eulogy, which of course means the good words we’d like to remain of our lives. I thought and thought of what to say, what not to say. And decided that as a songwriter, I needed to say it in music.

After I decided “I” would write a song for my project/paper, I set the perfect ambiance: prepared a tray with journal and pen, tea and healthy snacks, went outside into the perfect afternoon, to sit under they Meyer lemon tree in my back yard, ready for and courting inspiration. I spent several hours journaling and grateful for the beauty of the afternoon. And no music came. None. Not a note. And I realized the hubris of the ego saying it would write the song. Scooping up everything, accepting the folly of my presumption, as I was balancing the tray, coming through the door (yes, a literally liminal experience), I realized I was singing something under my breath. And it was the whole round. Complete.

What I take from the experience is the great responsiveness of the Universe/Spirit/Deep and Creative Self, when we allow ourselves to be present, to listen, to sing along, but not to assume we can control its scope or view.

I Know This Rose is the answer to my invitation (to the deep Self). The way I hear/feel it, I am the rose; opening is in my nature. Even when it comes time to let go of this body practice, I know this rose will open.

And although I may feel afraid of the changes, afraid of the unknown I can’t control, afraid of allowing the ego to follow the calling of something deeper, I know those fears will burn away (in the fire of transformation, this very physical practice of loving and living and letting go).

And as my fear burns away, I know, I trust that the wings of my heart, my soul, will unfurl their (my) wings.
Yes, I know this rose will open. I am the rose. We are all the rose. Opening.

May we all trust in the opening!

Friends, I am running out of things to say about these little rounds.

This one – another song of unknown origin – is sweet and very pretty when fully sung. Which is a sentence I have typed before and I fear will type again.

You see, the thing is – the rounds themselves are good and different and by and large fun to sing with a group. But when there is no source information, no complex lyric, no deep memories, well…. I don’t have much to write about.

Sing and rejoice.
Sing and rejoice.
Let all things living now
sing and rejoice.

I will say this one reminds me a bit of graces we sang at Girl Scout camp, and maybe it is, because I wouldn’t be surprised at all to discover Unitarian Universalists at camp.

It’s a good one – don’t get me wrong.

There’s just not much to say.

 

EDIT: I originally posted a DST ending pic but was reminded that it’s NEXT weekend. Whoops.

This song calls to us: “Come! Let’s be singing!”

And what shall we sing?

“Sing alleluia!”

That’s it. That’s the song. In English and in Hebrew.

Hava nashirah. Shirah alleluia!
Hava nashirah. Shirah alleluia!
Hava nashirah. Shirah alleluia!

Come, let’s be singing. Sing alleluia!
Come, let’s be singing. Sing alleluia!
Come, let’s be singing. Sing alleluia!

It is written in three parts that can be sung as a round  – or ideally a canon, which is great because one part is quite low and one part is quite high. It all seems simple, except the beauty of rounds is the complexity that comes when the parts blend. This one is quite gorgeous and joyful.

I don’t have much more to say…it’s origins are unknown but its presence is cheering.

 

Yesterday, as we closed the New York State Convention of Universalists/Hudson Mohawk Cluster gathering, my colleague Sam Trumbore called for us to sing something together. “What shall we sing?” he asked, looking at me because he knows I do this.

And embarrassingly, my mind went blank. Fortunately, someone else piped up with a song (Come Sing a Song with Me) which went fine, especially when someone jumped up to play it on piano. But I realized I was standing there with a bunch of doxologies and entrance songs in my head, but I couldn’t come up with a closing.

Truth is, today’s song is what popped into my head, truly the opposite of what we needed in that moment. What we needed was a joyful exit… (we got a rather sentimental one, but that’s okay). What this is could be best described as an invitation to deepening.  This is one of my favorite rounds; its deep, rich, minor tones evoke the mystery as much as the words do.

Gathered here in the mystery of the hour.
Gathered here in one strong body.
Gathered here in the struggle and the power.
Spirit, draw near.

We’ve encountered lyrics by liturgist and dancer Phillip A. Porter before, namely in When Darkness Nears; his words there and here evoke a depth that for me feels important, rooted, very first chakra.

And yes, even though I’ve sung it a thousand times, I love it.

 

This is not the chant I thought I knew.

And thank all that’s holy that no one else was around, because I was blissfully singing the chant I know (very similar, but not exact – the version I know includes a verse of “ai-aaaa, ai-oooo”) and did a cartoon screech to a halt when I looked at the hymnal closely. It was somewhat comic and fairly embarrassing, at least in my imagination.

But like mine, this one bubbles up anonymously from the neo-pagan traditions and just exists in the ether.

The earth, the water, the fire, the air,
return, return, return, return.

But what’s great about these chants is that they begin with a simple melody line that invites harmony and improvisation. It invites a cacophony of sound to grow and welcome the elements and then return to center, to calm, to focus.

And it’s that cacophony that I suspect many UUs are afraid of. I rewatched the Decentering Whiteness in Worship webinars in preparation for a workshop I’m leading on Saturday, and I was struck anew by something Julica Hermann de la Fuente said, that we worship an “ethic of control” – from time to energy – and letting ourselves immerse into a chant like this would be scary and uncomfortable. Yet in a properly held container by confident worship leaders, it can be freeing and deeply spiritual. I remember the Amen we sang at GA2016; there is a point at which the sheet music literally stops to invite the singers to improvise off the motifs, and we had to trust our conductor, Glen Thomas Rideout, to hold the space for it and bring us back together. I know that singing it was incredible; I can only imagine how beautiful it felt and looked and sounded to the assembly.

And I need more of this. I have been telling the UU Wellspring groups I am leading that I’m beginning to worry I won’t find a good spiritual practice after finishing this one, but singing this today – even though I started by singing the wrong one – tells me I need more chant in my life. Maybe I need to invite chaos and cacophony into my life…

 

Dear music directors and accompanists: Old Hundredth can be set in D major.

I make this an announcement, because it offended at least two musicians I have worked with when I suggested that we might transpose Old Hundredth down at least to F if not to D. “But it’s in G major and that’s where it’ll stay!” they argued. Because, oh, I don’t know, they forgot that musicians transpose things all. the. time. I don’t know why I encountered such pushback over the tune that congregations across the denominations have been using for centuries – I don’t know why they stuck with the high key when it was clear the congregations had lower voices. Saratoga Springs had no problem going to F major; it became warmer and more welcoming. Bringing it down to D makes it warmer still.

So now that I realize we have a setting of it in D major, right there on the page (set, by the way, in the original rhythm). In this case, it’s got three verses, which makes it a great introit kind of song. Here are our lyrics:

All people that on earth do dwell,
sing ye aloud with cheerful voice;
let hearts in exultation swell;
come now together and rejoice.

O welcome in this day with praise;
approach with joy your God unto;
give thanks, and faith proclaim always,
for it is seemly so to do.

For we believe that life is good,
love doth abide forevermore;
truth, firmer than a rock hath stood,
and shall from age to age endure.

They’re fine. A little fiddly in the second verse, and I’m not a fan of the phrase ‘it is seemly so to do’, but over all, pretty good. These lyrics are an Alicia Carpenter recast of the original version by Scottish cleric William Kethe. A paraphrase of Psalm 100, this was one of over two dozen psalm pieces he wrote for the 1561 Anglo-Genevan Psalter.

And given that information, we now know why the tune is called Old Hundredth. And it’s set in a nice, low, comfortable, warm and welcoming D major.

So there.

This is an amazing alleluia that comes out of the Muscogee Creek hymn tradition – which appears to emerge from the congregational line singing tradition.

In a 2014 story on All Things Considered, Dr. Hugh Foley, a fine arts instructor and Native American history professor at Rogers State University in Claremore, OK, explains more about this unexplored tradition:

“We’re talking about a pre-removal music that happened in the early 1800’s and was a combination of African spirituals, Muscogee words and perhaps some influences from their ceremonial songs and then all that being started by the Scottish missionaries who bring in Christianity and their own singing style. All three of those merge into what we now know as Muscogee Creek hymns which are a unique musical product in American and world music history.”

In some ways, this is a continuation of the story that I started thinking about when I heard that great On Being interview with Bela Fleck and Abigail Washburn, when she spoke about the origins of the banjo. Here too is a story of people coming together out of heartbreak and loss and violence and still finding connection. Is it any wonder the music of America is so rich?

Listen to the entire story here.

And.. enjoy a recording of this wonderful piece here.

Heleluyan, heleluyan;
hele, heleluyan;
heleluyan, heleluyan;
hele, heleluyan.

I don’t have much more to say. I love this, and I love learning more about the Muscogee Creek hymn tradition. What a blessing to have this chance to dig deeper.