Old Songs, Old Stories

A mild rant.

We seem to be in a time when the old, solid, tales-for-hard-times are returning to popular attention. I was reminded of this when I realized that the preacher for the church where I sing has selected nothing but the solid, old-time hymns since he got to the church. You know, things like:

You should hear a massed male choir sing that, in Welsh. WOW. You might not be a believer, but the sheer strength and power of the song grabs you.

One of my favorite old hymns, not done too often because it is too mystical and too harsh for a lot of people is “Jesus, Lover of my Soul.”

Jesus, lover of my soul,
Let me to Thy bosom fly,
While the nearer waters roll,
While the tempest still is high.
Hide me, O my Savior, hide,
Till the storm of life is past;
Safe into the haven guide;
Oh, receive my soul at last.

Other refuge have I none,
Hangs my helpless soul on Thee;
Leave, ah! leave me not alone,
Still support and comfort me.
All my trust on Thee is stayed,
All my help from Thee I bring;
Cover my defenseless head
With the shadow of Thy wing.

Wilt Thou not regard my call?
Wilt Thou not accept my prayer?
Lo! I sink, I faint, I fall—
Lo! on Thee I cast my care.
Reach me out Thy gracious hand!
While I of Thy strength receive,
Hoping against hope I stand,
Dying, and behold, I live. (Charles Wesley, 1740 or so)

The tune is minor, as so many of the songs I love are.

The stories that people seem to want today are not warm and fuzzy, exactly. Soft, fun escape stories are out there, and are selling briskly, true. But what also does well are the stories about getting through the hard times, surviving the storm and coming out greyer, scarred perhaps, and with your family intact. Or just defeating the enemy and coming home.

One of the weaknesses I see in a lot of Hollywood and NYC fiction is the unending insistence on breaking or modifying the story just to have the proper characters in the tale. Anne Boleyn has to be of recent African descent. The “hero” always turns out to be corrupt, or a dog-hater, or something. You must have so many of this, so many of that, none of those, and if it means invoking waif-fu* and Mary Sues and leaving nothing but the faintest whiff of the core story in place, hey! We’re inverting the trope, Dude! Like the YA novel I saw two years ago that proudly proclaimed that it was a gender-flipped version of The Princess Bride. For all I know, the author might have been able to pull it off, if she was good enough. But the description turned me off of even reading the first few pages. What’s left is worse than cotton candy. Cotton candy is sweet, sticky, and you know that it will be a mess and bad for you. That’s the point. 🙂 This stuff . . . is corrosive, and leaves you nothing to fall back on in hard times.

Hard times call for the old stories, old songs. Where the characters go through H-ll and come out the other side, singed but stronger. The ones that you can read over and over, and that can give you ideas for how to strengthen your back-bone and get through it, whatever “it” may happen to be.

Like old, great songs, the kind that inspire, comfort, that acknowledge that life can be hard, very hard, and painful, and that we feel lost and so very alone sometimes. And that tell us that we’re not alone, that others have suffered the like troubles. We got through the Great Depression and the Spanish Influenza. We got through the Thirty Years War, and the Ottoman Wars, and the Black Death, and the end of the Ming Dynasty, and . . . “Nobody knows the trouble I’ve seen,” except for the composers and poets and authors who did, and who survived, and left us hope and ideas and inspiration.

This is a setting of Psalm 100, a call to sing and rejoice. Note the composer’s dates. He did most of his work during the Thirty Years War and chaos around that time. He had to write motets because he didn’t have large choirs and orchestras due to the hard times. And yet he produced beautiful music that we still sing today. (This is a double-choir piece, call and response.)

OK, just because of the location and the voices:

*Waif-fu is the martial art discipline that allows a 90 lb, 5′ tall female to go hand-to-hand against a 250 lb, 6′ tall, professionally trained soldier or MMA fighter or police officer and beat him like a rented mule.


12 thoughts on “Old Songs, Old Stories

  1. I used to enjoy the waif-fu trope, because it was always justified.
    Gibson’s cybernetic assassin looks like a model? Cool.
    A Princess of Amber picks up a sword? (Sure, she can’t compete with her brothers, but…)
    A young woman uses obsession, discipline, and years of training to earn a magical sword, become a formidable swordancer, and go on a quest to find and free her enslaved brother? Awesome sauce.

    Then Joss Whedon happened.
    Now, I hate the trope.
    There’s a difference between subverting expectations, and pissing on them.

    • The older method understood the impossibility, and justified it.

      Whedon has been very influential on a certain flavor of modern storyteller. Note, this is the kind of influence where we can somewhat exclude some of the people who happen to have written Buffy fanfic.

      Whedon flat out wanted women who consumed his stories to think that they are the equal of a hundreds of pounds heavier man in raw physical force. Because for him, storytelling was a way to fish for victims. Hollywood liked what Whedon did, because Hollywood selects for people who are disturbed, and for people who are predators fishing for victims.

      Currently, my most favorite thing to read has a lot of waif fu. Much of the cast are kung fu wizards, and some of them are powerful enough that distance and mass are a little optional. So, I’m still potentially willing to accept waif fu.

      My issue with the Hollywood stuff is that when I think about it, I’m not eager to be party to them using the production of my entertainment for abusing others. So, I’ve made a lot of distance from Hollywood.

    • Sikelgaita, the second wife of Robert Guiscard. They were both Normans of the Old School. Apparently his troops and enemies were more afraid of her than they were of him, if accounts are true. (She was not, most emphatically not, a waif.)

  2. One of my favorite old hymns, not done too often because it is too mystical and too harsh for a lot of people is “Jesus, Lover of my Soul.”

    Ooh, that is powerful.

    …really don’t get how someone could not feel the power in it; my lack, I guess.

  3. The first video is the song that Kate Hepburn was attempting to get the natives to sing at the beginning of African Queen!
    I still have no idea what the lyrics are. I can’t understand the words to 99.44% of songs. I’m defective that way.

    • Understanding choir singing is sort of a skill, especially since very few choirs sing in the same dialect that the listener or the choir speaks.

      I’ve been known to mistake English lyrics for entirely other languages. So it’s not really a defect. Same thing with opera pronunciation, or with modern-musical pronunciation. There’s a knack to it.

      I learned how to listen to opera pronunciation, because I was motivated, but I’m in choirs and I still can’t understand lots of choirs. (I just sneer a lot at modern-New-York-musical pronunciation, or laugh, because it’s pretty hilarious.)

      Anyhoo, the song is “Guide Me, O Thou Great Redeemer,” aka “Guide Me, O Thou Great Jehovah,” aka “Bread of Heaven, Bread of Heaven, feed me till I want no more.” It’s about the parallel between God leading the Israelites through the wilderness on the Exodus, and Jesus leading Christians on the pilgrimage of life. So yes, it’s topical to The African Queen, because somebody unexpected leads Katherine Hepburn’s character through the wilderness… and there’s a nuptial significance to Israel and God’s relationship, so even more so.

      • I remember us going to a church in Germany on our one trip there, enjoying and recognizing the song the choir was singing, and only realizing it was in English sometime in the second verse.

        • One of the neater moments in my ramblings was wandering into a small church in Germany. A tour group (German) was there as well, and the organist was practicing chorales. So the Germans joined in. And so did those in my small herd who knew the hymn, either in English or German. We all smiled at each other and enjoyed the camaraderie.

  4. Powerful is right. And music was ‘hope’ to many in those days… Also ‘love’ the Waif-fu, nothing like physical impossibility to make me wall a book.

  5. I think we’re seeing the start of another rhyme of history, a turning away from the recent trends.
    To me, it can’t come soon enough. But I’m sure that proponents of the recent trends will fight to keep them, and I’m concerned about how far they’ll fight…

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