Posted by: rcottrill | March 12, 2018

Gone from My Heart

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Words: (source unknown)
Music: Stephen Collins Foster (b. July 4, 1826; d. Jan. 13, 1864), arranged by Daniel Brink Towner (b. Apr. 5, 1850; d. Oct. 3, 1919)

Wordwise Hymns (none)
The Cyber Hymnal

Note: As you can see in the link, many books give London Hymn Book as the source of this song, but no author. We know little else with any certainty.

In writing more than eleven hundred of these articles, I’ve focused mainly on the words of our traditional hymns and gospel songs. Words carry the message of the songs most directly and explicitly. For that reason, above all, our concern should be whether the text clearly and accurately represents the truths of Scripture.

But that’s not to say the tunes are unimportant. The music, and how it’s used, can either enhance the message of the words, or detract from it. Many of our hymns provide effective lines of poetic imagery that stir our souls. Poetry paints word pictures in order to help us better feel the impact of the message. Then, music can add an even stronger emotional element. When you have poetry set to appropriate music, you have a powerful tool of communication that can express both ideas and associated emotions.

That’s one reason why God’s Word contains so much poetry (Hebrew poetry in the Psalms and other books), and talks about music so much. The Lord knows we can worship Him, and testify to the truth, much more feelingly in song. The Bible urges us to “sing with understanding” (I Cor. 14:15; cf. Ps. 47:7), and that should include an understanding that the tune can carry a message all its own. Music is a language too.

Over the past century or so a strategy has been adopted by some music leaders in the church. The idea is that if we set God’s truth to the kind of music non-Christians are enjoying out in the world, it will make the gospel more attractive to them. But confidence in this premise is far from unanimous.

One group who tried it, around the turn of the twentieth century, created a song called We’ve Got Salvation, and set it to the tune of an old drinking song:

Roll out the barrel, we’ll have a barrel of fun;
Roll out the barrel, we’ve got the blues on the run.

But did those who sang the new words and heard the tune have a clear view of God’s call to separate from worldly values (II Cor. 6:14–7:1)? Such a combination could, in some cases, pull individuals back toward the world. It could imply “I guess I can have my old enjoyments and Jesus too,” nurturing a watered down Christianity, and perpetuating an entanglement in values and priorities God forbids.

We shouldn’t be afraid to be different, to offer music that is sacred (a word meaning separated, or set apart), not currently and identifiably associated with a godless world. Years ago, British hymn book editor Robert Bridges put it this way:

“If we consider and ask ourselves what sort of music we should wish to hear on entering a church, we should surely, in describing our ideal, say first of all that it must be something different from what is heard elsewhere; that it should be a sacred music, devoted to its purpose.”

The present song is another example. Though it’s also taken from long ago, I believe it illustrates the point. In the early twentieth century, the gospel song Gone from My Heart appeared in hymn books. The simple words–by an unknown author–are good.

CH-1) Gone from my heart the world and all its charms;
Now through the blood I’m saved from all alarms;
Down at the cross my heart is bending low;
The precious blood of Jesus cleanses white as snow.

I love Him, I love him,
Because He first loved me,
And purchased my salvation
On Calv’ry’s tree.

CH-3) Once I was bound, but now I am set free;
Once I was blind, but now the light I see;
Once I was dead, but now in Christ I live,
To tell the world around the peace that He doth give.

The text has a clear gospel message. But it was set to the tune of Stephen Foster’s secular ballad Old Black Joe, published in 1853. That was eight years before the start of the American Civil War, and a century before the civil rights movement began. The song references black slaves working in the cotton fields, with hearts “so happy and so free.” To African Americans who recognize the tune and know Foster’s lyrics, that tune might carry a lot of painful baggage which could muddy the message of the text.

This is, of course, a debated issue. And there are no hard and fast rules for it. But it would pay music leaders in our churches to be more sensitive to the current associations of the music they use, and choose what will be a help and not a hindrance to communicating God’s truth.

1) Have you ever had the experience of hearing or singing a hymn set to a familiar secular tune?

2) Did the tune awaken any thoughts or ideas not related to the words?

Wordwise Hymns (none)
The Cyber Hymnal


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