April 20, 2010

New Verses for a Bad Hymn

At my church Sunday, we sang—as we do much too frequently—one of my least favorite hymns, “Earth and All Stars.” The hymn is #412 in The Hymnal 1982. Words for this hymn were written by Herbert F. Brokering. The tune, which was composed specifically for this hymn and which is better than the text deserves, is by David N. Johnson.

According to Hymnary.com, Brokering wrote his hymn in 1964 for the 90th anniversary of St. Olaf College. It is a hymn of praise using contemporary references. The structure of the text and the lack of rhyme lead me to think that Brokering wasn’t really working very hard when he put this hymn together. Each verse contains the word “loud” in the same two places and “sing to the Lord a new song!” in the same two places. The refrain occurs after each verse. Here is my least favorite verse, including the refrain:
Classrooms and labs, loud boiling testtubes [sic],
Sing to the Lord a new song!
Athlete and band, loud cheering people,
Sing to the Lord a new song!

[Refrain] He has done marvelous things.
I, too, will praise him with a new song.
This may be poetry, but it is surely not poetic. Also, the meaning is none too clear. Singing the hymn, I thought the message was that earth and all stars, cheering people, etc., were singing to the Lord a new song, and I will, too. Because of the commas at the ends of the first and third lines of the verses, however, the sentences there cannot be declarative (earth and all stars sing, etc.) but must be imperative (you sing, earth and all stars, etc.). The imperatives are not nonsensical, but I don’t think they represent the most obvious sentiment. Frankly, the hymn is something of a laundry list.

It was not until I tried my hand at writing a parody of the hymn that I became aware of its lack of rhyme (and thus cleverness and grace). This makes satire-writing easy, except that it is hard to write anything more outrageous and prosaic than Brokering did. The parody I began writing does not seem satirical at all. My verses just seem like alternate verses. Anyway, here is the result of my modest effort at making fun of this frankly stupid hymn:
iPods and Droids, loud clicking keypads,
Sing to the Lord a new song!
Blackberry phones, loud sounding ringtones,
Sing to the Lord a new song!

He has done marvelous things.
I, too, will praise him with a new song.

Chevys and Fords, loud honking car horns,
Sing to the Lord a new song!
Corvette and Jeep, loud roaring mufflers,
Sing to the Lord a new song!

He has done marvelous things.
I, too, will praise him with a new song.
I am told that some churches became very fond of this hymn when it appeared in the new Episcopal hymnal. I’ve heard it described as different and contemporary, but I don’t think it wears well. Anyway, feel free to use my verses in your congregational singing. They’re no worse and no sillier than what people are already singing. Don’t credit me with authorship.

Update, 6/4/2013: Because many people like the tune “Earth and All Stars,” after singing it again in church, I decided to try writing an alternate text. The result is “Heavens and Earth, All of Creation.” My initial version is here, and an improved version is here.

13 comments:

  1. Oh, that is excellent. If you don't mind, I'm going to copy these and put them on my blog (duly attributed, of course).

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  2. Laura,

    By all means use my verses.

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  3. There is a tradition in the Psalms and some other Scriptures of this kind of use of the imperative to "Praise God" directed towards unlikely subjects; most notoriously mountains and hills, and various weather systems -- for which the recent incidents in Iceland serve as a warning!

    However, even these originals suffer from a bit of incongruity once one gets beyond "everything that has breath" and moves on to geology and meteorology. The urge to provide something new for St Olaf's anniversary should likely have been resisted. ;-)

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  4. Hi Lionel. Sounds like you like the tune not the words. This is an alternate hymn, same tune. In the new Evangelical Lutheran Worship Hymnbook:

    Alleluia! Jesus is risen!
    Trumpets resounding in glorious light!
    Splendor, the Lamb, heaven forever!
    Oh, what a miracle God has in sight!
    Jesus is risen and we shall arise. Give God the glory! Alleluia!

    Walking the way, Christ in the center
    telling the story to open our eyes;
    Breaking our bread, giving us glory;
    Jesus our blessing, our constant surprise.
    Jesus is risen and we shall arise. Give God the glory! Alleluia!

    Weeping, be gone; sorrow, be silent;
    death put asunder, and Easter is bright.
    Cherubim sing: O grave, be open! Clothe us with wonder, adorn us in light.
    Jesus is risen and we shall arise. Give God the glory! Alleluia!

    Same author, too!

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  5. Well, at least the new hymn in ELW has enough syllables to go around, unlike "Earth and all stars," which has always (in my experience) involved hearing such aural delights as "sing to the LO-ho-ho-HORD a new song" and "He has done Ma-ha-ha-HAR-velous things" -- each of them six times!

    Oy veh . . .

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  6. I love this hymn! Having grown up in Kansas (much the same type of country as where St. Olaf's is locate), I think it speaks to what we flatlanders have to have - an ability to find God's glory in places where most people just see weeds and scrubs. I confess, the 'test tubes' part annoys me, but the soaring refrain always moves me nearly to tears. I could write a book about this... but doubt anyone would read it!

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  7. Yes, it's silly, but I find that at my church it's especially appropriate. Since our church is on a major university campus, the "athlete and band, loud boiling test tubes" line is perfect for our surroundings and university-affiliated people in our parish. Plus, we recently finished the construction of our church--a project that had been halted during the Great Depression and never finished until two years ago, so the "limestone and beam" verse also really speaks to the congregation.

    Anyway, I guess what I mean to say is that once you get past the silliness of it, you can find meaning, just like what Fr. Craig said in an above comment.

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  8. Two years late, I stumbled upon this post concerning one of the least distinguished Lutheran contributions to ecumenical hymnody. Like Laura, and assuming you don't object, I will post a bit of the parody to my own blog, with a link back.

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  9. I've never really understood the dislike for this hymn, much less the loathing that some profess. The style of the text can easily be seen as following a model established in the Psalms, particularly the examples of Psalm 148 and Psalm 150.

    The version you quoted actually changes the punctuation. Clearly, some editor had a dislike for exclamation points. That might not be without cause, but it does somewhat alter the text. They hymn as I'm familiar with it from the Lutheran Book of Worship and Evangelical Lutheran Worship has the opening lines as follows:
    Earth and all stars! Loud rushing planets!
    Sing to the Lord a new song!

    The second line is descriptive, not imperative. The change in punctuation by exclamation mark avoidant editors leads you to an erroneous conclusion here, I think. It is certainly a valid stylistic point to say that such a text contains just too many exclamation points, but I'm not sure that punctuation should be the marker between a good and a bad hymn text.

    So it doesn't rhyme. I'm not sure why that should matter. Insistence on hymn texts rhyming is the source of some rather infelicitous phrases or significantly altered meaning in translations. There should be room in hymnody for various language forms in poetry.

    And, finally, what is it about test tubes? That phrase or verse is often singled out by those who dislike or loathe this hymn. No one who cites that reference in criticism has ever been able or willing to quite explain to me why it is worthy of, well, often, ridicule. Is it really that hard to see loud boiling test tubes as offering their own praise to the created of all things? Is our imagination to be so circumscribed by conventional imagery in hymns? The test tubes are actually one of the references that I like and appreciate about the hymn. It's not just musical instruments and people who praise the Lord. It's not just the heavens which are telling the glory of God (the stars and planets), or the pretty flowers. It's also inclement weather, knowledge, science, and daily work that express praise.

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  10. Mark,

    I don’t have a Lutheran hymnal handy, but, in the Episcopal hymnal, exclamation points only follow the phrase “a new song.”

    Obviously, there is a matter of taste here, and yours and mind differ. I am not about to try to change your mind.

    There are other—and, arguably, better—hymns that do not employ rhyme. Rhyme is hardly essential, but it does make a hymn memorable and, in part because the hymn writer sometimes does have to be inventive, thought-provoking.

    As for test tubes, anyone who has boiled liquid in them knows that it is tricky and potentially dangerous. It is better to boil liquids in a beaker or flask. “Beakers” could be profitably substituted for “test tubes” in the verse beginning “Classrooms and labs.”

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  11. As someone who has a Chemistry Final on Wednesday, I am even more endeared to the test tubes verse of this hymn and like that there is a hymn that can actually relate to my life...

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  12. “Earth and All Stars” seems to have both passionate proponents and detractors. If you like it, enjoy it. Personally, I hope not to have to sing it often.

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  13. Having grown up with the Service Hymnal (Congregational), then the Pilgrim Hymnal (UCC), and then the 1940 (Episcopal), I find the 1982 (Episcopal) hymnal a crime against church music. To my ear, it's got the wrong words with the right tune and vice versa. I think it's a lovely thing to fit new words to travesties such as hymn 412.

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