THE STORY AND THE SONG
‘THE HYMN-STORY is no substitute for the hymn itself; a second-rate piece of work is not redeemed because it was written by a certain person (ancient or modern!) or under remarkable circumstances.’ So says Carl P Daw Jnr of the USA in a recent edition of the American magazine ‘The Hymn’.
Almost every year some publisher treats us to a selection of the most dramatic hymn-stories he knows: of shipwrecks, fires, and industrial accidents; hymns written on trains, boats, or mountains; in lightning and tempest, in plague, pestilence and famine, in battle and murder, and in sudden death. I could add, from all such collections, Good Lord, deliver us – except that some years ago I was persuaded to add to them.
My own book would have been better than others, of course; it was to be ‘Your Hundred Best Hymns’, but someone else pinched the title. ‘Your 55 Best Hymns’ didn’t have quite the same ring to it; but the pictures aren’t bad.
While compiling it I learned that checking your sources is wise. It makes for a less sensational read, but it sifts out fiction from fact. And fiction, I have to say, is where most such anthologies excel. Stories of hymns engraved on glass, written in five minutes, or while sheltering from a storm (yes, even that) get passed from book to book, and no-one bothers to check them.
There are stories, too, about popular songs. Once a good tale gets into circulation, why bore people with the facts? Some famous lyric-writers, constantly asked about the origin of their songs, clearly polished their stories for their entertainment-value; this was show-business. Remember the great song of the American depression (I address oldies, and social historians) Buddy, can you spare a dime? What a song; what a writer! Dear old Sam, or was it Hank, Whatsisname, unforgettable among tin pan alley’s immortals.
He soon got fed up with the questions, and settled on his own two-liner for an answer. ‘You call that the song of the depression? Man, until I wrote that song, there was no depression!’ End of interview.
The camera pans to the bishop’s house in Chartres, early eleventh century. Fulbert looks up from the word processor where he is just saving Ye choirs of new Jerusalem on disk – I’ll skip the Latin.
Interviewer: ‘Bishop, this really is a great resurrection hymn; tell us how you came to write it?’
‘You call that a great resurrection hymn? Man, before I wrote it, there was no resurrection’.
Marginally improbable, but not so far-fetched as some of the stories I’ve read. Fulbert was not yet a Bishop when overtaken by a real event which brings him close to our generation. The millennium arrived, AD1000! Which enables me to close with a tale of our own.
You may have seen that Hilary Jolly won the St Paul’s Cathedral Millennium Hymn Competition. Brian Wren came second; good, I told him; he doesn’t need prizes, and anyway, his hymn is magnificent but hers is better.
At the press conference Hilary was enlarging on her generally anti-millennium views. She wrote Through the darkness of the ages because her vicar (Mark Ashton, St Andrew the Great Cambridge) reckoned the celebrations needed some Christianity. But she had no time for the commercial junketings – least of all, the ghastly dome. By this time the Dean of St Paul’s, chairing on home territory, was looking less than totally thrilled. He sensed a need to interpose: ‘You do’, he said with a nervous smile, ‘you do mean the Greenwich dome?’
True; I was there. No-one was drowned.
Christopher Idle belongs to Christ Church Old Kent Road in the Diocese of Southwark.