Old War-Horse Hymns

Since worship resumed with live bodies in the pews at my place of worship, the hymns (and now anthems) have all been from before about 1960, with one or two rare exceptions. Things like “Old Rugged Cross,” “It is Well With my Soul,”* “Guide Me, O, Thou Great Jehovah,” ‘The Church’s One Foundation,” “Jesu, Lover of My Soul,” and so on, the hymns I grew up with and that my parents grew up with.

These are the “hymns in times of trouble,” the solid familiar texts and tunes that have stood the test of time.** The only modern things I’ve heard thus far have been “Hymn of Promise” by Natalie Sleeth, “Here I am, Lord,” and a praise chorus that the church had been using before March, and that quietly disappeared once live worship resumed. We’ve gone back to the Gloria Patri, the Apostles’ Creed, and things like that.

Right now, people want the meaty, solid hymns about life, death, trouble, and salvation. They aren’t all “comfort hymns,” warm and fuzzy and all-will-be-well-Jesus-wuvs-you songs. “Once to Every Man and Nation,” and “Standing on the Promises” are not really warm-n-fuzzy if you really look at the words. They also make you pay attention to the music, demanding the singer’s attention and focus. There’s sin, and Satan, and tribulation and sorrow, there’s pain and suffering, and a large slug of hope and endurance.

When I can look at the hymn list and know all of them by heart, all verses, every week, we have really gone back to the Old Faithfuls. These are the ones I learned from the Broadman Hymnal of the Southern Baptist Church I attended in the summers in Houston, or the Sacred Harp songbook, or the pre-1980s -“reforms” Presbyterian and Methodist hymnals.

As I’ve moaned many times, I prefer the old meaty music, the uncompromising good vs. evil and the singable melodies. Yes, I know, my “singable” is not everyone’s “singable.” Going back decades, I’ve speculated that when the fit hits the shan, people will go back to the older hymns. At least in the case of where I currently attend, that’s happened in spades.


*Christmas with the Mormon Tabernacle Choir last year has almost ruined this one, because I cannot get through it without choking up. They dramatized the story behind the hymn, and wow, it’s a heart breaker.

**A lot of Welsh tunes drifting through, too, which fits the denomination’s history.

9 thoughts on “Old War-Horse Hymns

  1. Welsh tunes have a hidden benefit in times of trouble. They are easily sung by men, and break out to four (or more) parts in tenor and bass. Give them something with good words, easy to sing, and they stay, along with long arms and CC permits. Another benefit, besides setting up and moving tables.

  2. Give me the older hymns over too many of the newer ones.

    The older ones have a majesty that the newer ones lack.

  3. There are some modern “praise songs” I can tolerate. “Here I am Lord” is certainly one of those,
    “In Christ Alone” ( here https://www.stuarttownend.co.uk/song/in-christ-alone/ ) is another. I find
    that those that hew to the verse/chorus model are more tolerable than those with bridges and
    other sorts of musical folderol. Two things to remember about “praise songs”
    1) In many cases they are written to be sung by a single singer(usually the Songwriter/composer). This means their range and rhythms may be far outside what can be performed by congregational singers and often even moderately skilled Choirs. This means when sung by other than a skilled soloist they sound awful.
    2) The modern Hymnary has undergone hundreds of years (insome cases a thousand years) of winnowing. I have several 19th century Hymnals in which I recognize perhaps every 3rd or 4th hymn. Those hymns are NOT in a couple mid/ late 20th century hymnals I posses. This process is still under way for “praise songs” Already MUCH of the ’70s and early ’80s dreck has been abandoned. The ’90s, 00’s and 10s are just starting that sort and the chaff will be gone soon.

  4. I wouldn’t want to attend an ELCA service (belonged there, done that, burned the t-shirt) any more, but one wonders just what the reaction would be to “A Mighty Fortress Is Our Lord”, especially the later verses. I’d advise PPE for the exploding heads.

    • A hymn is for congregational singing, all joining in. They are often in unison, or in parts only if people feel so moved. An anthem is sung by a choir or a small group, and tends to require more skill with reading music. There are anthems that are arrangements of hymns. A few anthems find their way into the hymnal (“Eagle’s Wings” by Michael Jonkas and “Hymn of Promise” by Natalie Sleeth are two that come to mind), but are then simplified for congregational singing.

  5. No, your singable _is_ everyone’s singable. The older vocal hymns were composed for the vocal instrument, and placed in a key that was within the normal capabilities of an average congregation of humans.

    There’s nothing wrong with composing tunes for the piano or guitar or any other instrument, or for composing for opera singers. But if you aren’t thinking about the average vocal instrument when you compose, you’re not going to come up with something singable by everyone.

Comments are closed.