Truth be told, there are a few LDS hymns I just can’t get behind. “The Day Dawn is Breaking” is one. “Who’s on the Lord’s Side, Who?” is another– I feel like I’m in the chorus on the H.M.S. Pinafore when we’re singing that one. When we sing “Lord, Dismiss Us With Thy Blessing,” I feel the urge to end each verse with “the old gray mare is dead.” And when we close with “God Be With You Till We Meet Again,” I think of Spence Kinard and it makes me sad. I miss Spence, over there in those everlasting hills. Actually, I very much like “God Be With You,” so let’s not count that one. There are a few hymns (most titles escape me) that remind me of college fight songs. One of them (the one I do remember) is “Carry On.” In 1995 “Carry On” was adopted by President Hinckley as the theme of his tenure as prophet. I can see that. Still, some of the verses seem to conjure winter-bundled fans perched on bleachers, waving pennants:
Holding aloft our colors,
We march in the glorious dawn.
O youth of the noble birthright,
Carry on, carry on, carry on!
Some of the best sacrament meeting entertainment can be had from watching the chorister, the organist, or their playing off of each other. The other Sunday I was visiting another ward and the hymn “God of Our Fathers, Whose Almighty Hand” (I enjoy that one) commenced. The organist started with the eight pompous notes normally and we sang the first verse. But when the organist tried to play the eight notes at the top of the second verse, the chorister was already barreling through, leading in the lyrics. The organist stumbled to catch up and shot a daggered glare at her. The chorister comically craned her head back, wondering why the organist was having problems. By the third verse, the organist surrendered to the chorister. That was disappointing; those eight notes really make the hymn.
When I was a non-Mormon teen in Utah, a member friend invited me to her house for a youth activity, a viewing of the filmstrip, “Worthy Music, Worthy Thoughts,” narrated by Boyd K. Packer. I remember at one point it showed a mangy looking, long-haired dweeb screaming rock lyrics and then compared it to an uber-reverent group of primary kids singing “O, How Lovely Was the Morning”. I looked over at my friend as if to say, Are you serious?? As if those were my two choices, and my evil rock music jones could be exorcised in the twinkling of an eye with “I’ll Build You a Rainbow.” Not that this has anything to do with church hymns.
About 15 years ago, a book briefly became popular in Mormon culture, entitled “Music & the Broken Word”. It was a light novelty book that was supposed to resemble our hymnal. Inside were popular LDS hymns with the lyrics changed to be funny– most were not (this actually touches on another cultural phenomenon I’ll talk about another time– merchandising the Church). A few songs did have moments, though:
Book of Mormon stories that my teacher tells to me; All about the Lamanites, but not of George P. Lee.
While singing one of my less-favorite hymns, I might change the words here and there to entertain myself. Yes. my wife volleys withering looks at me, but I just can’t help myself. It’s my way of dealing with singing the hymn at all. Now, I acknowledge those who are sensitive to this. They might even quote me D&C 25:12, “For my soul delighteth in the song of the heart; yea, the song of the righteous is a prayer unto me, and it shall be answered with a blessing upon their heads.” But understand, this song is not a prayer of my heart; it’s a selection someone else chose that I get to slog through. There is a prayer in my heart, it’ll just have to wait and manifest itself some other way.
A counselor in my ward’s bishopric, degreed in music, has his own pet peeve regarding our hymns– they’re being played at half-speed. For years I thought it was me (and that telestial rock music influence of mine), that I wanted to pick up the pace on the singing. But no, it’s true, the songs are dragging– at least in our congregation. Unfortunately, this is one of those cases where you just deal. You can’t exactly take the bishop aside and say, “Can we have the hymns played at normal speed?” and expect the ball to begin rolling.
I recognize the importance of keeping an official, sanctioned collection of hymns, but it’d be nice if we could borrow more from other faiths. Some good Old Time Religion songs, the kind they had on “O Brother, Where Art Thou?”, like “Down in the River to Pray,” or a couple of the AME church hymns.
I love our hymns, I do. I just think it’s time to…retire a few.