Resurrection & the worship song

A few weeks ago, while chronicling my Greenbelt experiences, I mentioned a rather retro moment during the Rend Collective Experiment’s fabulous Big Top session. Towards the end of the set, the group began to play a tune that was instantly familiar, yet one that I’d not heard or sung in nearly two decades. I turned around and caught my sister’s expression – she was astounded and seemed to be looking around for someone to laugh with. Only no one was laughing…

The song in question was a Graham Kendrick classic from the 1980’s. One that had been sung over and over again. One that middle-aged flautists had played with glee, and that teenage girls liturgically danced to in an alternative worship services across the country in the early 1990’s. The song? The Servant King.
[Wondering about that liturgical dance? Think about the line: “hands that flung stars into space” and I’m sure you can begin to imagine it.] 
It may not be up there with Shine Jesus Shine, but it’s most definitely of its age. However, in that tent, on a hazy August morning, several thousand people sang it with enthusiasm, passion and real meaning. It seems that a song, relegated to 1980’s naffness, can make a comeback – and perhaps we should be a lot less cynical about the songs of yester-year…
Lately, I’ve been fascinated by the fact that many of today’s worship song writers are returning to old hymns, either in terms of song-structure (more verses with theological content, less repetitive choruses/bridges), or writing new tunes to old words. A current favourite example of this would be Hillsong’s Cornerstone. Last year, our worship leader introduced a new song with the words: “this uses familiar words, but a new tune – prepare to have your minds blown”. The song in question – a reworking of Be Thou My Vision – may not have actually blown my mind, but it has apparently become my mind’s go-to song in moments of quietness. In fact, it was written for an album (currently in production) entirely consisting of new interpretations of old hymns. 
The irony is that while certain songs and hymns of a bygone age are coming back into fashion, others of the more recent past are fading into naffness. Take Here I Am to Worship – a song that’s in the top 25 of CCLI songs, i.e. the Christian songs that have been most played in churches. Once upon a time it was the epitome of contemporary Christian music and it’s certainly one that’s meant a lot to me over the years. [The song’s author is in the year above me at Vicar School and as many of you know, is still producing high quality stuff, so I’m really not trying to do him a disservice.] However, when it was played at church last week, I was overcome…
…no, not with the power of the Spirit, but with the giggles. The problem was that it brought back a very vivid memory of a night in France, with a guitar and a lapsed charismatic Christian who could only remember the chords of one song – the aforementioned worship hit. It proceeded to be played on an out of tune guitar, in a darkened room of a chilly gite, with random people joining in in a semi-ironic fashion. Obviously, I struggled not to join in, particularly struggling with the fact that I wasn’t sure I could sing it in a semi-ironic fashion given that my natural instinct was to join in with the harmonies. But the whole scene amused me greatly and it’s clearly stuck in my mind. 

Hopefully it won’t be there forever as otherwise I’ll get the giggles at even more inappropriate moments than I do already.

Friday Fun returns!

Morning! It’s been many, many weeks in absentium, but today Friday Fun returns. I’m already realising that a working life that does not involve being tethered to a desk 5 days out of 7 has a negative impact upon the amount of fun that one encounters online, but we’ll see how we progress…

Firstly, cunningly related to my new line of work, a video that’s been doing the Facebook rounds since its appearance at the end of last month. Entitled ‘Wrong Worship’, this is a truly excellent parody of how not to sing/write worship songs. The fact that even my High Church sister found it hilarious says a lot…

Of course, it really wouldn’t be Friday Fun without some brilliant TfL geekery. Firstly, some die-hard geekery: did you know that it’s possible to catch westbound Circle Line trains from the same platform as eastbound District Line trains at Tower Hill? [Well, you would if you followed me on Twitter last night…] Plus, as I was told in reply to aforementioned tweet, you can also get a northbound Victoria Line train from Euston to King’s Cross and a northbound Victoria Line train from King’s Cross to Euston. I’m convinced TfL’s sense of direction may be lacking…

But the true TfL geekery (for which I have the lovely Becki to thank) is a site which maps fictional tube stations. It’s basically geekery squared – it includes, for example Vauxhall Cross station from Die Another Day; Crouch End station from Shaun of the Dead [deleted scenes only!]; plus assorted old films, soap operas (Sun Hill and Walford East of course feature) – someone had a lot of time on their hands! But their effort is much appreciated and will be enjoyed by many a lover of TfL, spurious facts and useless trivia.

Oh, and in case you thought it couldn’t get much better, the same people have gathered together links to all the alternative tube maps they could lay their hands on – hours of geographical joy, right there! I particularly enjoyed their own ‘uncluttered’ version (below), one indicating how much of the network is underground (not much really) and the anagrammed version (which I may, or may not, have mentioned before). How very clever.

There, hopefully that’s enough fun to sate you for the weekend ahead. If not, I do apologise and will try harder next week – after all, none of this week’s content was derived from The Hairpin, which is quite an unusual occurrence.

Hymns, songs and immature amusement

It’s taken me nearly a week to get round to this – partly because it needed some thought and partly because I’ve had other pressing blogging concerns (well, Black Swan and Friday Fun). Last week Rach tagged me in a post relating to a meme that’s been doing the (Christian) rounds on the subject of ‘Contemporary Christian Music’ praise songs.

The meme is as follows:

Please try to name ONE (I know, there are so many to choose from) CCM praise song that you find unbearable and at least 2-3 reasons why, pointing to specific lyrics if you must.

Ahhh, Christian worship songs – a topic on which I could pontificate forever, probably owing to my Methodist roots. People should know that Methodists are more obsessed by the words and tunes of hymns/songs than any other denomination or group – they know the names of tunes for hymns as well as at least 3 possible alternatives, not to mention enjoying a cappella hymn singing at their annual conference. [Most talked about Methodist news item of the last 5 years? The new hymn collection. Most responded to national Methodist consultation ever? The new hymn collection.] I’m not going to directly answer the meme because I don’t like to be restricted in my ramblings and it made me think of a few other related tangents…

My first reaction was that there are plenty of recent songs that I dislike intensely, but often this is more due to the music than the lyrics. Take Tim Hughes & Nick Herbert’s Jesus Saves, a rock anthem of a worship song that is beloved by the electric guitar toting members of my church’s worship band (possibly because Nick’s our worship leader). It’s impossible to sing as a woman (we’ve devised a happy compromise with an acceptable harmony on the chorus that’s basically an ‘ahhhh’) and has been described on more than one occasion as a song in which wannabe rock stars can go to town. The lyrics are ok, there’s nothing to get wound up about – it’s really just the music that infuriates me.

Actually, over the last few days I’ve made a list of songs I don’t like and now I come to look at the lyrics I’ve realised that they’re not so bad. Take I Stand Amazed, for example, whose words were actually written in 1905 and then brought back by Chris Tomlin. I’ve loathed this song for ages, but reading the words they actually tell quite a story and bring some old skool hymn style into the 21st century (though I do have issues with a song including the word ‘marvellous’). What I can’t stand is the dirge of a tune that accompanies it – harsh I know, but true.

Thing is, the way people react to music – any kind of music – is deeply personal and you’re never going to please everybody. I just wish modern day worship song writers weren’t so male dominated, then we’d have more songs that women could actually sing comfortably, rather than moving across 3 octaves during the duration of one song. Oh, and one other thing, could worship leaders think a little more carefully about the words they use and the order in which they use them?

Christian teenagers can be strange beings and often have a rather odd sense of humour, finding mirth in things that to a casual observer wouldn’t be amusing in the slightest (or simply an indication of a warped/dirty mind). To be honest, if you’re a child of the manse or vicarage, you’ve got to be able to derive some humour from the world of church – and so we have the tradition of ‘amusing’ moments in worship songs…

When I was a teen, our youth fellowship had a worship slot each week where we could shout out requests – usually in the form of the relevant number from Songs of Fellowship (volume 1, that’s how old I am). Without fail you could expect the following to crop up:
SOF 27 – As the Deer [To be sung: “As the deer PANTS for the water…”]
SOF 73 – Come on and Celebrate [“…sellotape, sellotape, sellotape and string…”]
SOF 370 – Lord, you put a tongue into my mouth [We never actually sang this – in fact I’ve never heard it – but our minister’s son requested it, without fail, every single week and every single week his Dad would turn to the relevant page before he realised what it was.]

By the time we got to more modern songs (i.e. when the worship group discovered Matt Redman) we were then blessed with the chortle-fest that is Heart of Worship. In fact, talking about this with my student small group last week, I simply had to mention ‘inappropriate worship songs’ and the first verse of this song was immediately recited. For the non-Christians, or non-Matt Redman fans amongst you, the song opens with:

“When the music fades, All is stripped away, And I simply come”
Honestly, don’t people realise how teenagers’ minds work??! Or perhaps they truly believe that once in church and engaged in worship, peoples’ minds are on a higher plain and thus such things are no longer amusing. 
But to be honest, I’m grateful for all the hymn/song writers out there. I can’t compose for toffee so am happy that others churn out songs I enjoy singing on a regular basis. Also, just in case this post find its way to Nick (respected worship leader and leader of my cluster), please don’t be offended that I dislike Jesus Saves so much – to balance it out, Keep the Faith is one of my favourites… 

A question of clapping

I’ve got a new research project and I’m turning to you, my treasured blog-readers, to provide the data I need – I do hope you’ll oblige.

The project in question is, if you will, an exercise in musical ethnography. Specifically, it relates to the rhythmic clapping that takes place at certain points within a (one time) extremely popular religious chorus…

Graham Kendrick’s Shine Jesus Shine was the first ‘mega chorus’ (that’s my term) of the worship song era. Up and down the country congregations of all denominations and most traditions could be found singing it lustily of a Sunday. In fact, in our suburban London church, it got to the point that it had been sung to exhaustion and was banned for five years.

Like the best cringeworthy and beloved choruses, SJS has clapping segments, enjoyed primarily by middle-aged women and small children. Until yesterday, I thought this clapping was fairly standardised – that was until I’d read Caroline’s description of praise choruses in Belize. Apparently there no one claps at all:
“either the northern [?] clapclap-clapclap, OR the southern [?] clapclapclap-clap)?”

This was the first I’d heard of a rhythmic clapping north-south divide. In fact, in the two (southern) locations in which I’d sung this the clapping had been the first rhythm, not the second. (I established this by tapping it several times on my desk, much to C’s annoyance.) Now, perhaps Caroline got the regions round the wrong way, or maybe (as she commented) it’s actually a north-middle-south divide.

So, research…I know a fair few British Christians read this; most (if not all) have probably sung SJS more than once in their lifetime; a lot of them have probably lived in a variety of UK locations; and at least a few will have lived in the ‘north’. Is there a rhythmic clapping divide?

I’ve done a bit of research myself, and located this clip which illustrates it being clapped the way I’m used to. Be warned, the sound quality’s appalling as it was filmed on a mobile phone in a school assembly. But this helpfully illustrates a tangental point. At my secondary school SJS was the only hymn ever sung in assembly with any kind of enthusiasm. (The only other song that was sung with similar passion was the school song – Gaudeamus Igitur and only because certain Latin lyrics could be turned into double entendres or just plain ‘rude’ words. Even now, me and my school friends could probably sing all 4 verses if requested.)

Anyway, the clapping was the pupils’ favourite bit, yet it never ceased to make me and my two Christian friends cringe that:
(i) This wasn’t even a ‘good’ song in our opinion. (This was at a time when Matt Redman had just appeared, but we didn’t sing his stuff at school.)
(ii) We wouldn’t ever consider engaging in rhythmic clapping at school or at church – it just wasn’t the done thing.
[It might also be worth mentioning that our school hymn-book was Hymns Ancient & Modern, with the addition of only three songs whose words were taped into the inside covers – the school song, SJS and Make Me a Channel of Your Peace – perhaps that shows why SJS was seized upon so enthusiastically.]

Intriguingly, my brief trawl of YouTube indicated a lack of clips with any form of clapping at all. Most weren’t British, so perhaps the clapping is our own phenomenon? Anyway, I’d be grateful (and I’m sure Caroline will be too) if you could shed some light on this interesting* question – a short comment will do. Thanks.

*Apologies, I realise ‘interesting’ may be taking this a bit far. We find it interesting, doesn’t mean you have to.

What I meant to write…

Yesterday, I managed to write an entire post without mentioning the subject I’d intended to blog about. Actually, I vaguely touched upon it – it involved singing & church – but I mostly got distracted by my own narcissism. Again.

I have a love-hate relationship with worship music, you know, the songs (as opposed to hymns) that get sung in churches of a more evangelical bent. Mostly I love them, but at the same time, they’re not brilliant in a technical musical way and can be oh so slightly repetitive. Then there’s the fact that most worship leaders subscribe to the philosophy that Christian soft-rock rules…

And most worship leaders are male. This isn’t some feminist musical rant – honest – but the fact that most of the people who write and lead these songs do so in keys that are completely incompatible with female vocal ranges. (It’s how I end up singing harmony lines most of the time.) Take my current favourite Matt Redman song – at church singing the chorus’ tune involves a bit of soprano style screeching, thanks to the worship team’s transposition of it to a key that best suits them.

Plus (and this may be a massive generalisation) but guys in worship bands appear to have aspirations beyond the sanctuary. At my church at least, you can guarantee that at any one time there will be at least:
– one band member referred to only by their surname
– one, if not two questionable hats
– one, if not two questionable hairstyles/examples of facial hair
Not to mention the developing of worship styles that sound uncannily like major bands of the moment.

Take last Sunday for example. There was the Coldplay style worship song (You’re Beautiful) in which the lead guitar goes to town with the whammy bar and the backing vocalists sing very credible “oooohs”. My least favourite song of the moment – Jesus Saves – was turned into a veritable rock anthem (again only singable at male pitch), there may even have been head-banging. Finally, we segued from one track to another via Kings of Leon style “woahs” (specifically Use Somebody style). Don’t get me wrong, I loved it – I was up on stage with them after all – and I have massive respect for the bands’ musicality, but it amused me.

Before you think I’m being totally sexist, I’ve never noticed this kind of behaviour from female worship leaders. True, one of my friends might turn almost every song into a jazz standard, but I kind of like that. Otherwise they just seem to go with the mood and remain faintly inconspicuous (whilst also singing at a sane pitch).

Now, the moment the band decides to do a Take That (more likely than Boyzone, I figured) style worship set, I will be all over them like a rash…