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That old, old impulse to tweak and re-write

As a worship leader I confess I grumble from time to time about the current propensity of our songwriters to appropriate and revise classic hymns in ways that just drive me crazy.

For example, my worship pastor has heard me rant on more than one occasion about Chris Tomlin’s modification of the last verse of Crown Him With Many Crowns. The original lines directly address Jesus:

All hail, Redeemer, hail, for Thou hast died for me, Thy praise and glory shall not fail throughout eternity…

But Tomlin, for some reason that doesn’t entail the rhyming scheme, revises the words to talk about Jesus rather than to Him:

All hail, Redeemer, hail, for He has died for me, His praise and glory shall not fail throughout eternity…

Why, Chris, why? You could’ve modernized the language without screwing around with the perspective of the song. Argh.

Oh, and don’t even get me started about the multiple Christian-ese re-writes of Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah”. Yikes.

OK, I’ll get off my soapbox.

This past weekend we had a garage sale, and among 3 big boxes of sheet music my Mom brought to the sale, I found a book that lets me know that this isn’t a new problem.

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“World Famous Christmas Songs, containing the best and most popular Songs of the Nativity”. Compiled and Edited by the Reverend George Rittenhouse. Published in 1929, it’s an eclectic assortment of both secular and sacred songs.

What stuck out to me as I paged through was that when it says “edited” by Rev. Rittenhouse, they weren’t kidding. His fingerprints are all over this thing.

For instance, he rather ambitiously chooses to re-harmonize Angels We Have Heard on High with some extra movement:

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Another place he appropriates Bizet’s L’Arlessienne and some old lyrics to create a rather bombastic tune subtitled “The March of the Kings”.

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Then there’s this gem, wherein he re-writes the lyrics of “O Tannenbaum!” to give them a Christian angle:

O Christmas Tree! Fair Christmas Tree! A type of Life Eternal!
O Christmas Tree! Fair Christmas Tree! Your boughs are ever vernal.
So fresh and green in Summer heat, and bright when snows lie round your feet
O Christmas Tree! Fair Christmas Tree! A type of Life Eternal!

A classic waiting to happen, right there. There are two more verses if you’re really interested.

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The more things change…

I guess I shouldn’t be surprised that these impulses have been around a long time. (Picture a musician in the court of King Hezekiah – “gah, why can’t we just sing that psalm the way King David wrote it?”) But it was comforting to see that confirmation, and to be reminded that history has a way of weeding out the material of lesser quality and holding on to the good stuff.

I guess I can be patient.

13 Comments

  1. Silly worship leaders, never leaving anything alone! In all seriousness, though, I think it’s natural for artists to want to bring something new – whether it’s a musical or lyrical arrangement/adaptation. It’s a bit of a tension to manage – knowing that while people are often comforted and respond well to familiar things, it’s okay to create and stretch and do new things.

    • I agree with you, we all as worship leaders want to bring something new – that’s part of the creative gift that we have. So really I’m not ranting about innovation – there are new hymn settings, rewrites, and the like that are really good and improvements on the original. What I *am* ranting about (or wanting to) are the innovations that (in my ever-so-opinionated opinion) really screw good things up. 🙂

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