A JOYFUL NOISE
Where do great old songs go to die?
You want to feel old? Try talking to someone in their 20s about songs that you know so well they’re part of your bones, and having them tell you, “NO ONE will know that song! I’ve never heard of it!”
It is a testament to our positive relationship that when
I put my eyeballs back into my head, picked my jaw up off the floor and
told him in no uncertain terms that they would know it, and that it was the right song for us to do, he agreed to include it in the program for
mass. Sure enough, many “older” parishioners knew it and were thrilled to have
it return to the parish choral canon. And, undoubtedly, there were 20-somethings
in the assembly who had to learn it as we went along, since they had
indeed, “never heard of it before.” Since then, it has become
a staple in our programming. While the specific realities of our world
have changed since the ‘60s, the words and prayer of the hymn continue
to resonate in today’s economic and social climate.
There are other hymns that seem to suffer the same fate.
They become tied to a particular issue or era and, when that passes,
they fade into the mists of time along with the particular issue, even
though their message is far more timeless. Sometimes there are issues
of bad theology or language that does not coincide with the values of
the church (for example, too heavily exclusive, perhaps having “war-ish” themes
like the Battle Hymn of the Republic, which would likely cause a riot
at my current parish), but sometimes they just became too commonplace
or attached to a particular issue and thus were put aside — and
forgotten. Which is a shame and a loss for the community.
Not that I am advocating bringing back every old hymn.
Several years ago in another parish, I worked with the priest in my then
home parish to mark the 40th anniversary of Vatican II by having an “all-60s
Sunday” mass. We sang some of the catchy but very bad hymns of
the time (is there a better ear-worm than Sons of God?), the priest wore
his Birkenstocks and a big wooden cross and the choir dressed in “mod” outfits,
and we used the Nicene Creed in place of the Apostle’s Creed. It
was great fun and warmly welcomed by the community, with many people
suggesting maybe we should sing those songs far more often. Or not .
But it evoked the feelings of that era — the hopefulness, the sense
of inclusion, the importance of active participation by the community
in the mass rather than just being passive observers, and the role of
the laity in parish life. You see the same thing at class reunions. Staid,
respectable scions of the community return to their youthful roles as “rebels
on the dance floor.” As life passes, the things that moved and
shaped us can become faded if fond memories. Just as new music can inspire
us to new action, older music can also serve as an instrument to revive
memories and commitments and enthusiasms.
Our faith and experience evolve and our music should evolve
with it, both in content and in style. Just as some fashions are fads
and should stay fads (I don’t even want to talk about my history with leggings),
so too should some songs. Others are more classic and can stand the test
of time — Chanel suits and We Shall Overcome are fine examples.
And when brought back, they are fresh and new to those experiencing them
for the first time.
One of the songs from the musical Fiddler on the Roof says: “Our
great men have written words of wisdom to be used when troubles must
be faced . . . Life obliges us with hardships so the words of wisdom
shouldn’t go to waste . . . ”
Just as the words of the Bible and the teachings of great
men and women of many faith traditions remain relevant no matter when
they were written, so too are there old hymns that can enrich and inform
our liturgical celebrations. What songs are languishing in the back of
your musical closet that should be brought back into the light of day,
aired out and put to good use? There’s nothing like a new season and a new choir
year to make the “old” seem suddenly new again.
And while I am saddened by the many ways in which we as a global community are still far from creating a “new Jerusalem” of love for all, I am glad I have a hymn that expresses my hopes and prayers, for deep in my heart, I do believe, we shall overcome some day . . .
A Saskatchewan soprano, Burton has sung praises to the Lord in Regina, Saskatoon, Winnipeg and now at St. Joe’s in Ottawa, where she is a chorister and cantor at two masses.