Archive for the ‘songwriters’ Category

This will date me terribly, but when I was about 7 or 8 years old, I developed a really keen passion for the sounds of modal scales, and began adding folk music to my repertoire of Mozart, Schubert, and Grieg. If my memory serves me faithfully the musical source I turned to again and again was a small but thick compilation of folk tunes by Burl Ives. Because Mr Ives played the guitar, this musical morsel introduced me to the musical world of chord symbols and progressions. I fell in love with haunting and plaintive minor melodies and the ways the modal harmonies added certain colours – all great stuff for a little girl with an active imagination. I remember liking the Dorian mode so much that I thought one day, if I ever had a little baby boy, I would name him Dorian. But instead I grew up to inherit a little female puppy dog and Dorian just didn’t seem to fit.

Anyway, from these playing sessions inside my treasure book of folk music – which quickly became worn and dog-eared with use, with pages unhinged from glued binding – I learned about other composers of folk music, and learned that we Americans have been gifted with a lot of early music from the British Isles.

Some of the songs I would play over and over again, and much to the dismay of my long-suffering family who had to listen to me practice, would be those of John Jacob Niles. Black is the colour of my true love’s hair and Barb’ry Ellen must have been a couple of tunes I drove them crazy with! As an adult I still appreciate his lovely contribution to our music repertoire for hymns and Christmas carols. For his last work, he turned to the poetry of Thomas Merton, the Trappist monk, to give us the Niles-Merton Song Cycle.

For the Christmas season Niles’s I wonder as I wander has always been a favourite of mine when I introduce his music to some of the English choirs I’ve conducted here in the UK. Its tonal colours and poignant message never fail to transport me to another time and place. Born in 1892, by the time Niles set this work to music and lyrics in July of 1933, he had travelled the world several times and become a keen observer of the human condition. Here are his recorded notes of how this lovely creation came to be:

‘I Wonder As I Wander grew out of three lines of music sung for me by a girl who called herself Annie Morgan. The place was Murphy, North Carolina, and the time was July, 1933. The Morgan family, revivalists all, were about to be ejected by the police, after having camped in the town square for some little time, coking, washing, hanging their wash from the Confederate monument and generally conducting themselves in such a way as to be classed a public nuisance. Preacher Morgan and his wife pled poverty; they had to hold one more meeting in order to buy enough gas to get out of town. It was then that Annie Morgan came out–a tousled, unwashed blond, and very lovely. She sang the first three lines of the verse of “I Wonder As I Wander”. At twenty-five cents a performance, I tried to get her to sing all the song. After eight tries, all of which are carefully recorded in my notes, I had only three lines of verse, a garbled fragment of melodic material–and a magnificent idea. With the writing of additional verses and the development of the original melodic material, “I Wonder As I Wander” came into being. I sang it for five years in my concerts before it caught on. Since then, it has been sung by soloists and choral groups wherever the English language is spoken and sung.’

For this Christmas season, I’ve been asked to introduce another American Christmas carol to another English choir. As I was trolling through my choral library this summer, a hidden gem of Niles’s seemed to float to the top of my choral octavos. Soon I will begin to teach Sweet Marie and her Baby (Aeolian mode) to the kids in our Village Children’s Choir.

Hopefully these precious children will become enthralled by the magic of the modes in melody and harmony, and as touched with the message of the text as I was – all those years ago when I was close to the age they are now.


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This post, in part, is inspired by a recent post of my dear friend’s, Jim Clark, and also an unwarranted reflection on the dismal turnout for our vicar’s first attempt at Liquid Church (See last post. For a description of Liquid Church, click on that title for a link).

Sometimes I wonder if our American Christian society – which I, and others, see slowly seeping into the British church culture – hasn’t been going ‘Hollywood’ or ‘Nashville’. We can’t be ‘just’ loving, caring ministers from the pulpit or with children or in other ministries, whether as professionals or as laity. We have to be ‘celebs’ in whatever ‘field of ministry’ we were called to – a concept, it would seem, to be uniquely American. If we’re not, then those who could come to our churches, attend our programmes, etc., won’t, because they just have not heard enough great and marvellous things about what our clerical expertise has produced. In their estimation, the entertainment value is just not significant enough for them. Their benefits and our success seem to go hand in hand.

What is wrong with this picture?

A couple of illustrations I am familiar with:
Young composers/songwriters, no matter how theoretically and educationally trained, or how ’God inspired’, might never complete their projects or fully develop as the composer God intended for them to become. Why? Because before the notation is even correctly edited on their manuscripts, those who hold the power in the music industry have already thrown flaming arrows and judged a young composer’s work as insignificant, invalid, and against the bottom line: it won’t sell, it won’t have great video or marketable value, and it most definitely will not be a hit. The kid doesn’t have what it takes to be an instant celeb – in looks, weight, or bless, personality. Fix their teeth, work on their image, for God’s sake! Success and significance are merely pipe dreams. Forget that the song or work of music might be uplifting to a body of worshippers who just want to please the Lord.

Gone are the days when the composers of hymns – tune or text – remained faceless. The hymn was the cause celebre, not the hymn writer.

Within my own field of ministry, I am ‘called’ on at various times to produce music suitable for worship. Whether it meets a certain liturgical criteria, or fits in with a specific spiritual theme for the corporate benefit of the choir or congregation during worship, I am tasked to compose something, hopefully compelling and inspiring, much as a preaching minister would have to come up with the next week’s homily, even when I might not feel so inspired.

Whatever ‘work’ comes out of the creative process, it is nonetheless my offering, one to be shared, yet more importantly one to be presented to my God. My prayer for the process is always twofold: one, that it will edify fellow worshippers, and two, that it will be pleasing to God. No matter if there will only be twelve choir members singing on the day, or a congregation of just thirty-five, whatever piece of music I supply for the worship has to function as an offering pleasing to Him. It might never be sung again. Some congregants might politely sing praises to my face of its artistic qualities, yet diss it behind my back. It quite possibly will not be accepted by a big established publishing house. It most definitely won’t get a mention in Variety or be in the Top Ten on the radio. And (sniffle), it might never win that Dove or Grammy award!

How easily it is to paralyse our walk with God when the focus of our God-gifted abilities lies on our world’s spectacular circus of fame and fortune. Those of us who were born to please others can certainly fall prey to this spiritually debilitating paralysis, and our cycle for failure is set, sadly, for life.

There is a special hymn from my childhood, one I loved whenever we sang it in worship, and one I dearly miss hearing sung congregationally today. I will sometimes, as a reminder of its noble message and beautiful music, pull out my old hymnal and play it on the piano, committing it to heart once again.

I dearly hope the text of this hymn uplifts you. But keep in mind that even this lovely hymn offering had to suffer an earthly trial. Literally. In court. All the hours spent arguing its case, for both musicians involved, no doubt paralysed further service of real significance in their own strolls with God through verdant meadows green. At the end of the text, I have included a portion of the court’s ruling from Judge Duffy’s Opinion. (You can read the entire case by clicking on the link with his name. As a musician, I especially like that last paragraph below.)

As I continue this season of Lent, I am grateful for friends like Jim who – though far, far, away – help me wrestle with such reminders. So, for this week, perhaps my Lenten focus will be more on walking, step by step, with my loving God, who simply wants to clasp hands, and go for aye together.

Now where’s that hymnal?


IB Sergei (Wihtol), 1935

My God and I go in the field together;
We walk and talk as good friends should and do;
We clasp our hands,
Our voices ring with laughter;
My God and I walk through the meadow’s hue.
We clasp our hands,
Our voices ring with laughter;
My God and I walk through the meadow’s hue.

He tells me of the years that went before me:
When heavenly plans were made for me to be;
When all was but a dream of dim conception –
To come to life, earth’s verdant glory see.
When all was but a dream of dim conception –
To come to life, earth’s verdant glory see.

My God and I will go for aye together,
We’ll walk and talk as good friends should and do.
This earth will pass, and with it common trifles,
But God and I will go unendingly.
This earth will pass, and with it common trifles,
But God and I will go unendingly.



Wihtol VS Wells

Plaintiff Wihtol was born in 1889 in Riga, then a part of Russia, later a part of Latvia. He studied music in his childhood, and has followed that art professionally all his life. He has written many musical compositions, especially ecclesiastical pieces. He came to the United States in 1909, and to Chicago in 1936. Prior to August 15, 1935, while in California, he wrote the song “My God and I.” Plaintiff testified that in his early boyhood, an organ grinder used to make weekly visits to the neighborhood in Riga where plaintiff lived, and that among the tunes played was one similar but not the same as the tune in “My God and I.” He testified that he had never heard the song sung. He carried this tune in his mind for many years. Plaintiff’s composition was designed primarily for church choirs and had soprano, alto, tenor and bass scores.

The accused composition is also entitled “My God and I.” It appears in a song book entitled “Evangel Solos and Duets Number One.” This book was published in 1951 by the Evangel Music Company, Inc., which defendant, his wife and another had organized as a corporation for that purpose. On the cover of the book appears “Written and Compiled by Kenneth H. Wells.” A photograph of Mr. Wells also appears thereon. Wells was an ordained minister of an interdenominational group. From 1943 to 1951 he frequently used plaintiff’s composition, and was aware of the favor with which plaintiff’s “My God and I” had been received in church circles. The Evangel Music Company, Inc., was originally named a defendant herein, and was referred to as a firm. The corporation was dissolved and plaintiff consented in the District Court that it be dismissed from the case, and this was done.

The District Court found “In composing the accused song, the defendant used the melody of the plaintiff’s song which he, the defendant, had committed to memory.” The District Court found that the tune in suit was taken from an old Latvian, Italian or Russian folksong, and that tune was in the public domain for years prior to the time plaintiff copyrighted it in 1935. The Court said: “…the tune of the song in suit is incapable of being protected by copyright.”

Of all the arts, music is perhaps the least tangible. Music is expressed by tonal and rhythmic effects. People can enjoy music without a technical understanding or education, but to make music available, someone must write it. To make a song available, someone must bring the notes and words together.

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