I’ve been digging through hymnals the last couple weeks for various reasons and that’s the origin of the musings that are about to give birth to a new two-part blog series.
Part one: I have relied on hymn-prayers my whole life and they’re one of my favorite decor tools for my walls and mirrors and kitchen cabinets. I am thinking of actually framing a hymn-prayer text for every room in our new house. So I started making a list, and there are too many to put on my walls all at once. So they’ll be going here, and I hope you’ll appreciate them.
I often sing while I’m doing my early-morning work, whether it’s dishes from the night before, starting the day’s meals, or sweeping through the house putting things in their proper place. I love to start my day with order around me but I need to get my heart in order, too. It’s hard to have the wrong attitude or motive about mundane housework when you’re praying along the way. But it’s hard to focus on praying when you’re doing things. That’s why I love metrical, sung-out-loud hymns. So every Monday morning look here for a new Prayer Song to Work By.
Part two needs a bit more explanation and background. During my time at St. Olaf I grew to love traditional spirituals. The one that first comes to mind is Keep Your Lamps. My roommate and I quoted it and sang it to each other all the time, after learning it for Christmas Festival. “Don’t get weary.” “Christian journey soon be over.” There’s a reason people through history and through the world sing while they’re working. It passes the time and keeps you focused on God.
Now as a mom I am looking for songs to sing for a different purpose: to teach to my kids. I really dislike a lot of the children’s song literature that’s out there, particularly the Christian stuff. It’s either trite and silly or antiquated or moralistic. Then it dawned on me: spirituals and Christian folk songs are the perfect song literature for children! So on Tuesdays you will see here a new song for children. Not all of them will be spirituals in the strictest sense of the word. Some will be folk songs, some from the American gospel tradition, some from the wider global repertoire. Here are my basic criteria for what I’ll include, and what I want to teach my little kids as they’re growing up.
1) The language must be simple. The imagery and syntax must be no more complex than what you’d here in a child’s natural vocabulary. The poetry must rely on rhyme and meter and call-and-response rather than imagery or flowery language. The language must be universal, basic, and not antiquated. Kids don’t say “Thee” or “O’er” or “ever glad at heart.” There are great hymns and songs with that kind of language in them, and some could stand as good children’s songs. But you won’t find them here.
2) The music must be rhythmic, varied, and repetitive. This is why spirituals are such a good candidate. The Afro-Cuban musical tradition ties sound to dance. Kids need to move and they need to feel a beat. Quarter notes and European harmony are not what kids get excited about or sing in the sandbox. There are great hymns and songs with that kind of music, and my children will learn lots of them. But again, you won’t find them here.
3) The subject matter must be Biblical, presenting doctrines or narratives you find in Scripture. I have no patience for the moralistic children’s fare of the 19th-century. The point of the Bible is not to teach children to be “good little boys and girls.” Of course I want my kids to be good little boys and girls, but that’s a by-product, not a goal. You won’t find those ditties here.
4) They must have successfully transcended their cultural source either chronologically or geographically. A song they sing in Tanzania that Americans thought was worth singing here is something to sit up and notice. A song they sing in the 19th-century cotton fields that found its way into our hymnals is something to sit up and notice. There are lots of great Christian songs for children out there, written in the last few decades with American language and poetry and I hope my kids will learn a lot of them. Many of them even do a good job setting straight Scripture to music. But you won’t find those here. They’re easy enough to find elsewhere.
I know an enormous amount of theology in the form of poetry. I am undyingly grateful to my parents for giving me that heritage and so excited for my kids to get it from me. With two professional church musicians for parents, they’ll do far better than either Mike or I ever did. But I have to be careful not to let my expertise geek my children to boredom. They’d be missing out if they didn’t have some fun songs to dance to and clap to and march to and giggle about; to sing in the tub and the car and the swingset. So to that end, my collection of Songs for Little People starts tomorrow.