A Common Body of Songs

In preparing for a career as a music teacher, I was asked to compile a list of 100 songs that everybody ought to know.  This challenged me to think about songs that have lasting value.  This would be an even greater challenge in view of today’s culture where there seems to be an obsession with finding something new and refreshing.  In some church settings, new songs are sung without sufficient time for a song to be learned.  I’m not a dancer, but if I were, I would have to know the steps before I could really enter into the dance.  As a pianist I can’t really express myself until I know the music.  Is it any different for people who are expected to lift their hearts and voices together in song?  

I grew up in a family that sings together.  I remember an old adage, “The family that prays together stays together.”  Singing together also helps us establish lasting bonds.  My mother sang as she washed dishes and did other housework.  My Dad, in addition to his profession as a teacher, also ran a small farm to make ends meet.  Often times, our family lingered at the kitchen table and sang barbershop harmonies, hymns, and more.  The cows  had to wait to be milked until we finished our song fest.  These are great memories.

Songs are a little like clothing.  I sometimes wore “hand-me-downs” from my older brothers, and I gradually grew into them.  Some “kid’s songs” like clothes are soon outgrown, but there are songs we grow into as we mature.  A song we hear and sing as children can come alive later as we discover the rich meaning of the words.  The late Paul Wohlgemuth, professor and church musician, shared something that revealed the gradual disappearance of a common body of songs that are widely known.   In his class on the study of songs, he began each semester with a quiz.  The students were asked to respond as they listened to traditional melodies.  They were to respond in one of three ways:

  • Identify it by title.
  • Heard it before.
  • Never heard it. 

Each year “never heard it” became the more frequent response.  What kind of legacy do we want to leave for those who follow?  Certainly, the lifeless singing of traditional songs is not the answer.  Time-tested songs sung with energy and conviction will continue to be valid expressions for succeeding generations.  It also helps when older people take time to share a few words about the way a song has nurtured their faith.  The so called “seasoned saints” must also learn to embrace the “new songs” that are a blessing to our young people.  Every song I like was new one day.  Here are some thoughts to ponder:  If something is not your style, why not go the extra mile and consider the other person’s view?    When you hear something that’s new and different to you, why not decide in advance that something new could be yours?  Or, when you hear something that’s old, perhaps you’ve been told that it has no relevance today.  Well, the old can be new and meaningful, too, no matter what they say.  In love there is unity.  We’ll not always agree on the song, or the key, but we should strive for unity!

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