Monday, May 07, 2007

how can I keep from thanking?

Last October, I wrote about what I called a “quintessential New England fall day,” which ended up with a hymn sing at church. If you will indulge me, I want to quote part of that post on my way to some new thoughts.

Tonight about twenty of us gathered at the church to sing. Growing up Southern Baptist meant I went to church most every Sunday night for evening worship. What I loved best about it was the singing. The service was less formal and had much more music. Those who were there seemed to be the ones who loved to sing and we all joined in on our gospel favorites to close out the day. Here we gather to sing on Sunday evenings once or twice a year, but many of the songs are the ones so ingrained in me from childhood that I still know them by heart. One in particular seemed to catch the spirit of my entire day, “How Can I Keep From Singing” by Robert Lowry. (You can play the melody in the background while you read if you wish.)

My life flows on in endless song;
Above earth’s lamentation

I hear the sweet though far off hymn

That hails a new creation:

Through all the tumult and the strife

I hear the music ringing;

It finds an echo in my soul—

How can I keep from singing?


What though my joys and comforts die?

The Lord my Savior liveth;

What though the darkness gather round!

Songs in the night He giveth:

No storm can shake my inmost calm
While to that refuge clinging;

Since Christ is Lord of Heav’n and earth,

How can I keep from singing?


I lift mine eyes; the cloud grows thin;

I see the blue above it;

And day by day this pathway smoothes

Since first I learned to love it:

The peace of Christ makes fresh my heart,

A fountain ever springing:

All things are mine since I am His—

How can I keep from singing?


As I sat down to write tonight, I did a little research on Robert Lowry, the hymn writer. He is responsible for several of my favorite hymns: "I Need Thee Every Hour," "All the Way My Savior Leads Me," "Savior, Thy Dying Love," "We're Marching to Zion," and "Shall We Gather at the River?" The last hymn was written in 1864 when he was pastoring. As the Civil War was raging, so was an epidemic in New York and Lowry wondered what prospects for Christian community lay on the other side of death. He wrote “How Can I Keep From Singing?” in 1860, before the war began. In Lowry’s mind, what mattered most was his preaching, yet his music is his enduring contribution. As his biographer wrote:

While Dr. Lowry said, "I would rather preach a gospel sermon to an appreciative, receptive congregation than write a hymn," yet in spite of his preferences, his hymns have gone on and on, translated into many languages, preaching and comforting thousands upon thousands of souls, furnishing them expression for their deepest feelings of praise and gratitude to God . . .. What he had thought in his inmost soul has become a part of the emotions of the whole Christian world. We are all his debtors.
For our anniversary, Ginger gave me a gift card to Newbury Comics, our local music store chain. I didn’t carry it for long. I got two things I really wanted: Beautiful Maladies by Tom Waits (a collection of his songs on Island Records) and We Shall Overcome: The Seeger Sessions (America Land Version) by Bruce Springsteen. I learned to play guitar thanks to folk music, so the Seeger disc has been an incredible feast. And it has also held a couple of wonderful surprises, not the least of which is a cover of Seeger’s version of “How Can I Keep From Singing?”.

According to several sources, Pete Seeger learned the song from a woman named Doris Plenn who told him she had learned it from her Quaker grandmother. Seeger adapted several hymns along the way and the same with this one. Plenn wrote a new third verse to reflect the fear and passion of that time when so many artists and activists were being accused of being Communists. Here is the lyric Seeger and Springsteen (and Eva Cassidy) sing:
My life goes on in endless song
Above earth's lamentation

I hear the real though far-off hymn

That hails a new creation

Above the tumult and the strife

I hear its music ringing

It sounds an echo in my soul

How can I keep from singing?


What though the tempest loudly roars
I hear the truth it liveth

What though the darkness 'round me close

Songs in the night it giveth

No storm can shake my inmost calm

While to that rock I'm clinging

Since love is Lord of heaven and earth

How can I keep from singing?


When tyrants tremble sick with fear

And hear their death knell ringing

When friends rejoice both far and near

How can I keep from singing?

No storm can shake my inmost calm

While to that rock I'm clinging

Since love is Lord in heaven and earth

How can I keep from singing?
The song, on the Springsteen CD, is sung by a small choir of friends in beautiful harmony. It has become the soundtrack to my drive home from work the last couple of weeks; I keep hitting the repeat button and I’m pulled in by the very first line:
My life goes on in endless song above earth’s lamentation . . .
And I’m moved by Plenn’s courage that shows through in her verse:
When tyrants tremble sick with fear
and hear their death knell ringing;

When friends rejoice both far and near,

how can I keep from singing?
Faith oozes out of both versions – the kind of faith that frees slaves and frightens politicians; the kind that opens doors and hearts, that embraces everyone. The song certainly pulls me in, whether I’m singing Lowry’s words in church or singing along with Bruce and friends on my night ride home. To everyone who has carried this song to me – and carried me with it, consider this a thank you note.


Peace,
Milton

7 comments:

gander said...

I can see where my money is going next. Thanks, Milton!

Rich said...

Thanks, Milton. So many mornings you begin my morning with your holy words. About 3 years ago, I spent a week with the Iona Community in Scotland. The theme for the week was "How Can I Keep from Singing?"

After one morning service, as we exited the Abbey, the piano player led us in "Hi-Ho, Hi-Ho, It's Off to Work We Go." Can't think of a better way to be sent out into the world.

Karen said...

You have given me some lovely background (plus another reason to check out the Seeger Sessions) for a song I have been in love with ever since I first heard it (somewhere in the dark mists of past time). I suggested using it for next year's Blessing of the Palms on the Common. There is always an "anthem" done by all the choirs in attendance, and usually it is not terribly inspiring (and does not stand on its own well as an a cappella piece).

My other favorite time to recall this song is when I am having a bad case of what I call "sticky brain" - where you get the last thing you heard stuck and playing over and over in your head. This usually happens at work and the tune is usually some up-to-date current commercial drivel. "How Can I Keep From Singing" is so much more worthwhile, and so much more musical, that it drives the drivel right away.

I still have the page with this song on it that I copied from "Sing Out" magazine many ages ago.

Thanks for the bright musical spot in my day.

mark_heybo said...

Fantastic post! I must check out that song!

Tee said...

I never heard of Dr. Lowry before and appreciated the interesting little biography :)

My favorite line from this post was: "...the kind of faith that frees slaves and frightens politicians..." Powerful stuff! :)

Peace.

KQ said...

Thanks for the history lesson - this really adds to the richness of the lyrics of a beloved song. My women's quartet celebrated our 20th anniversary with a recital on Saturday, and "How Can I Keep From Singing" (with the Plenn verses) opened up the second half of the concert. It is, truly, a joy to sing.

Keep on singing, Milton. You are in my prayers.

Enz said...

Nearly 3 years ago, on a Thursday,I was laid off from a job I had once loved but that had slowly, imperceptibly gone sour on me. That Sunday our minister of music had the pulpit and rather than preach a sermon, she sang one. Her essay/concert included "How can I keep from singing" and it seemed to me to capture perfectly the sense of grace, relief and peace that came after the bitterness had passed. The next week, when I went to clean out my office and say goodbye, I stopped in the lobby on my way out(an atrium with the Best Acoustics Ever) and sang, full-voice:
What though the tempest loudly roars
I hear the truth it liveth
What though the darkness 'round me close
Songs in the night it giveth
No storm can shake my inmost calm
While to that rock I'm clinging
Since love is Lord of heaven and earth
How can I keep from singing?

It rang for a long time.

Enzgrrl