Fixated on A capella Hymns

corksacredharpIt was near St. Patrick’s Day. I typed “Irish sacred music” in the search engine. And I discovered Cork Sacred Harp. My husband Curt was on medical leave and we sat entranced for hours watching videos on YouTube. And now it’s become a daily habit to listen and sing along to our favorites a capella singing from Ireland.

In 2012 we rented this DVD about Sacred Harp singing from Netflix. The quote in the photo above says, “features some of the most raucous group vocals that have been recorded.” True, that. The music in the movie is primitive, unrefined, at times jarring. It is intense, heartfelt, loud. We found ourselves simultaneously compelled and repelled. And so intrigued that I bought the DVD. What is shape note singing? See this article. The shapes correspond with fa-sol-la-mi; the first swipe through a song the singers use these syllables. With several parts singing different notes, it may sound like random mish-mash to begin with.

Listen: The music is often fugal. This means that there are the melody lines enter in a staggered fashion, braiding tunes until all parts sing together. Here’s a good example, a hymn tune we regularly sing to a different text:

Why has this music captured me? I think it is the clean—yes, even sharp—edges of rhythm. It’s that the majority of the songs are in minor keys. It’s the full sound of people singing with gusto. If I had a gun to my head and had to say my favorite hymn (a funny thought experiment) I would say Come Thou Fount. Here it is to the tune I Will Rise.

I don’t like every one of the videos listed under CorkSacredHarp, but I’ve “liked” my favorites and then watch that “liked” playlist daily. I don’t get weary of them. Here is a list of my favorites. The title is name of the tune.

146 Hallelujah – might be the best known Sacred Harp song
63 Coronation – All Hail the Power. The frail woman in the inner square: priceless
30t Love Divine – Tollie Lee is the most lively, engaging leader
350 Nativity – Another example of fugal singing, one we love to sing at my church
128 Promised Land – I love Shirley! I am bound for the Promised Land.
45t New Britain – Amazing Grace done Sacred Harp style
569b Sacred Throne – I grew up singing this tune to Alas, and did my Savior bleed?
59 Holy Manna – Eimear and Sadhbh are my favorites. The song, too.
547 Granville – This gripping lament was written in 1986 by Judy Hauff
344 Rainbow – We sing this “as is” except for the solfege at the beginning.
148 Jefferson – You will never hear Glorious Things of Thee Are Spoken the same again 457 Wayfaring Stranger – Another familiar song with glorious harmony
117 Babylon Is Fallen – Oh. my. I wake up with this song on my lips.
448b The Grieved Soul – What is that that casts thee down? A song for depression.

I suspect that 95% of my dear readers will not enjoy, explore, pursue this music; there is no accounting for taste. But I know there are a few of you who will become as fixated as I have become. You will lose of day of productivity soaking this music into your system. Someone said Sacred Harp is a capella Heavy Metal. (I copied it from a website in German!) This metal is embedded in me.


Reminders of Mortality

DSC_8672One thing hymns do so well is remind us of our mortality. A lifetime of singing lyrics that regularly refer to death prepares us for that one moment from which we can’t escape.

Yesterday I knew that our friend Dean’s life was hanging in the balance. After a long bout with congestive heart failure, he had had a heart attack. His daughter wrote me that the next 24 hours would be vital. As I sung yesterday’s hymns my heart prayed for Dean and for his family.

And when this flesh and heart shall fail,
And mortal life shall cease,
I shall possess within the veil
A life of joy and peace.  (from Amazing Grace)

Redeeming love has been my theme,
And shall be till I die  (from There Is a Fountain)

Be near when I am dying,
O show my cross to me;
And for my succor flying,
Come, Lord, to set me free:
These eyes, new faith receiving,
From Jesus shall not move;
For he who dies believing
Dies safely, through thy love. (from O Sacred Head)

We arrived home late, after a long day unplugged from technology and plugged into friendships. I checked my messages to find out that Dean had died a few hours before.

Sitting on my desk is a sticky note reminding me to send a card. It says “Dean – Even down to old age.”  Today he is in glory — doesn’t need encouragement.

Even down to old age all my people shall prove
My sovereign, eternal, unchangeable love.
(from How Firm a Foundation)

55 Hymns I Love to Sing



The other reason that I make music is to celebrate the
certainty of the Lord, since there is no other way I can
understand the contradictions and confusions that surround me.
— Anthony Trollope


I was raised on hymns. They were my mother’s milk, my first solids, my daily bread, my cup of tea. I can’t remember a time when I didn’t sing hymns, nor a time that I haven’t loved hymns. I sing hymns that sweep my soul up and bring me to the gates of heaven. I sing hymns that mourn, a haunting melody in a minor key that alone reaches the nooks and crannies of my grief.  Hymns, well-done, show me how great my God is and how much that affects my life.  They remind me of what is true, they teach me how to respond, they encourage me to change.

I’ve worshiped with Plymouth Brethren, Baptist, Evangelical Free, and Presbyterian churches. In other words, I come from a broad range of hymnody: English melodies, Fanny Crosby, revival hymns, plainsong, German chorales, psalms from the psalter, Welsh hymns, folksongs, Vaughn Williams, Luther, and one of my favorites: Claude Goudimel.   

Just as in books, there are good ones and there are raspy ones. I when hear certain hymns I think: All Skate!  Other have a sing-song rhyming scheme that sounds like a seventh grader wrote it. True, some tunes are dated and just bad. There are bouquets of flowery, sentimental sap that may not even be orthodox in their theology.

Hymn geeks know that each tune has a name. The name of the tune may come from the city where it was composed, the first words of the hymn—often in their original language—or some phrase that identifies it. Or in the case of one favorite, the tune is SINE NOMINE, meaning without a name. I included the tunes because two people out there will care to know to which tune I sing that particular hymn.


1.  Doxology OLD HUNDRETH   This should be the first praise song every toddler learns. And perhaps the last song with the last breath of life.  Our church sings this, a capella, at the end of every service.

Praise God from Whom all blessings flow,
Praise Him all creatures here below.
Praise Him above, ye heavenly hosts.
Praise Father, Son and Holy Ghost.

2.  Come, Thou Fount of Every Blessing NETTLETON   

Come, Thou Fount of every blessing,
Tune my heart to sing Thy grace;
Streams of mercy, never ceasing,
Call for songs of loudest praise.

3.  My Soul, Now Bless Thy Maker (Psalm 103) NUN LOB, MEIN SEEL   The truth is that many of my favorite hymns are based on Psalm 103.  Unfortunately this one is obscure.  How do I translate to you the joy and thrill it is to sing this?  Almost every audio version I’ve found has a slow, dreary tempo when this is a vigorous and confident tune.  So here’s the best combo I can find: Listen to this version (click on 519) after you’ve opened a window with the words.

My soul, now bless thy Maker! Let all within me bless His name
Who maketh the partaker of mercies more than thou dar’st claim.

4.  Shout, for the Blessed Jesus Reigns TRURO   I love TRURO like my friend Steph loves HYFRYDOL. We are kindred spirits in our hymn geekdom.  Listen here.

Shout, for the blessed Jesus reigns; through distand lands his triumphs spread;
And sinners freed from endless pains, own him their Saviour and their Head.

5.  Only Begotten, Word of God Eternal  ISTE CONFESSOR   There is gravitas in this ninth century hymn.  Tune is here; words are here (pause the music that automatically starts).

Here in our sickness, healing grace aboundeth,
Light in our blindness, in our toil refreshment:
Sin is forgiven, hope o’er fear prevaileth,
Joy over sorrow.

6.  Jesus Shall Reign  DUKE STREET   Besides loving ancient hymns in minor keys I love triumphal anthems.  Tune here and words here.  I love to modulate up a half key with each new verse.

People and realms of every tongue dwell on His love with sweetest song;
And infant voices shall proclaim their early blessings on His Name.

7.  O Sing A New Song to the Lord (Psalm 98)  LYNGHAM   To hear a large group singing this four-part fugue is glorious.

O sing a new song to the Lord, for wonders He has done.
His right hand and His holy arm the victory have won.

8.  O the Deep, Deep Love of Jesus EBENEZER  The music matches the words in this piece better than any other hymn I can think of.  I hear the ocean currents. 

Underneath me, all around me, is the current of Thy love;
Leading onward, leading homeward, to thy glorious rest above.

9.  Praise To the Lord, the Almighty LOBE DEN HERREN If you don’t know this hymn, please learn it.  Every phrase is rich, solid, steady. 

How oft in grief hath not he brought thee relief,
Spreading his wings to o’ershade thee!


10. For All the Saints SINE NOMINE  Alleluia!

We feebly struggle, they in glory shine.

And hearts are brave again, and arms are strong


11.  In Christ Alone  Music and lyrics here.  What is it about this modern day hymn that is so potent?  The words speak to the core issues of life and death.  The soaring intervals. 

And as He stands in victory
Sin’s curse has lost its grip on me.


12.  Great Is Thy Faithfulness FAITHFULNESS   No other song evokes memories of mom like this one.

Strength for today and bright hope for tomorrow,
Blessings all mine, with ten thousand beside!


13.  Holy, Holy, Holy NICAEA 

Though the darkness hide thee, though the eye of sinful man thy glory may not see,
Only thou art holy: there is none beside thee
Perfect in power, in love, and purity.

14.  Jesus, Thy Blood and Righteousness GERMANY  

Fully absolved through these I am
From sin and fear, from guilt and shame.

15.  Come, Ye Disconsolate  CONSOLATION

Here bring your wounded heart, here tell your anguish;
Earth has no sorrow that heaven cannot heal.

16.  Leaning on the Everlasting Arms

What a fellowship, what a joy divine,
Leaning on the everlasting arms

17.  Trust and Obey   One of the first hymns I sang as a girl.

For there’s no other way to be happy in Jesus

18.  O Come, All Ye Faithful ADESTE FIDELIS  After I learned about Athanasius, I lift up thanks for him when I sing this carol. Why? Because much of the doctrine in it was defended by him.

Word of the Father now in flesh appearing

19.  All Glory, Laud, and Honor  ST. THEODULPH  Bach wrote a great harmonization on this tune.

Thou didst accept their praises, accept the prayers we bring,
Who in all good delightest, Thou good and gracious king!

20.  We Are God’s People  This is one of our church’s favorite anthems.

He wills us be a family, diverse yet truly one,
O let us give our gifts to God, and so shall his work on earth be done.

21.  Like a River Glorious WYE VALLEY

We may trust Him fully all for us to do,
They who trust Him wholly find Him wholly true.

22.  Why Do the Heathen Nations Vainly Rage? POURQUOI FONT BRUIT

How blessed are those who trust without dissembling,
Who kiss the Son and bow in reverent fear.

23.  O for a Thousand Tongues  AZMON   There are 19 (!)  stanzas in the original lyrics.  We have great fun singing it to this tune, like a fugue.  Click on the link. Do it!

Assist me to proclaim to all the earth abroad
The honors of Thy name.


24.  All Hail the Power of Jesus’ Name  DIADEM, CORONATION, MILES’ LANE  Diadem is my favorite setting of this anthem.

And crown Him, crown Him, crown Him, crown Him,
And crown Him Lord of all!

25.  The Lord Bless You and Keep You LUTKIN  A fitting benediction.

The Lord bless you and keep you, the Lord life his countenance upong you,
And give you peace.

26.  God Himself Is with Us ARNSBERG  Simple, solemn beauty.

Like the holy angels who behold Thy glory,
May I ceaselessly adore Thee.

27.  All Creatures of Our God and King  LASST UNS ERFREUEN  Mr. Bean almost ruined this for me.

Ye who long pain and sorrow bear,
Praise God and on Him cast your care.

28.  Jesus, Lover of My Soul  ABERYSTWYTH  Another minor key masterpiece!

All my trust on Thee is stayed,
All my help from Thee I bring;
Cover my defenseless head
With the shadow of Thy wing.

29.  Infant Holy, Infant Lowly    This Polish Christmas carol is a simple lullaby packed with truth.

Thus rejoicing, free from sorrow,
Praises voicing, greet the morrow,
Christ the Babe was born for you!

30.  Now Thank We All Our God NUN DANKET   Not just for Thanksgiving, this one is always relevant.

Who, from our mothers’ arms has blessed us on our way
With countless gifts of love, and still is ours today.

31.  O God Beyond All Praising  THAXTED 

And whether our tomorrows be filled with good and ill,
We’ll triumph through our sorrows and rise to bless you still.

32.  O Love, How Deep, How Broad, How High!  DEO GRACIAS  THis one is dense and thick and chewy.

That God, the Son of God, should take
Our mortal form for mortals’ sake!

33.  What Wondrous Love Is This?

And when from death I’m free,
I’ll sing and joyful be,
And through eternity I’ll sing on.

34.  Amazing Grace  NEW BRITAIN  How did I forget about this before?

‘Tis grace has brought me safe thus far,
And grace will lead me home.

35.  God Be in My Head 

God be in my head, and in my understanding.
God be in mine eyes, and in my looking.
God be in my mouth, and in my speaking.
God be in my heart, and in my thinking.
God be at my end, and in my departing.



36.   St. Patrick’s Breastplate ST. PATRICK

Christ be with me, Christ within me,
Christ behind me, Christ before me,
Christ beside me, Christ to win me,
Christ to comfort and restore me.

37.  Awake, My Soul, in Joyful Lays LOVING KINDNESS

When trouble, like a gloomy cloud, has gathered thick and thundered loud,
He near my soul has always stood, His loving kindness, oh, how good!

38.  The Church’s One Foundation AURELIA

Yet she on earth hath union with God the Three in One,
And mystic sweet communion with those whose rest is won.

39.  Rejoice, the Lord Is King DARWALL

Lift up your heart, lift up your voice!
Rejoice, again I say, rejoice!

40.  When All Thy Mercies ST. PETER    Fernando Ortega sings this well.

When all Thy mercies, O my God,
My rising soul surveys,
Transported with the view, I’m lost
In wonder, love, and praise.

41.  The God of Abraham Praise  LEONI  I love this Jewish melody.

I shall behold His face, I shall His power adore,
And sing the wonders of His grace forevermore.

42.  Jesus! What a Friend for Sinners!  HYFRYDOL

Jesus! what a strength in weakness! Let me hide myself in Him;
Tempted, tried, and sometimes failing, He, my strength, my victory wins.

43.  How Sweet and Awful Is the Place  ST. COLUMBA  This lilting Irish melody is quietly powerful.

‘Twas the same love that spread the feast that sweetly drew us in;
Else we had still refused to taste, and perished in our sin.

44.  O Lord, My God, Most Earnestly  THIRD MODE MELODY  If you’ve seen Master and Commander, you’ve heard this haunting tune.

Beneath the shadow of Your wings I sing my joy and praise.
Your right hand is my strong support through troubled nights and days.

45.  Let All Mortal Flesh Keep Silence  PICARDY  This French Carol has very little ornamentation. It is solemn, simple, and powerful.

Let all mortal flesh keep silence, and with fear and trembling stand;
Ponder nothing earthly-minded, for with blessing in His hand
Christ our God to earth descendeth,  our full homage to demand.

46.  Alas, and Did My Savior Bleed? MARTYRDOM  One of the foundations of my youth.

But drops of grief can ne’er repay the debt of love I owe;
Here, Lord, I give myself away, ‘Tis all that I can do.


47.  And Can It Be  SAGINA 

Amazing love!
How can it be that Thou, my Lord,
shouldst die for me?

48.  Children of the Heavenly Father  One of my brother’s signature songs.

Neither life nor death shall ever from the Lord His children sever;
Unto them His grace He showeth, and their sorrows all He knoweth.

49.  Fairest Lord Jesus  CRUSADER’S HYMN 

Beautiful Savior! Lord of the nations!
Son of God and Son of Man!
Glory and honor, praise, adoration
Now and forevermore be Thine.

50.  Gloria Patri

Glory be to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Ghost;
As it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be,
World without end. Amen, Amen.

51.  Joyful, Joyful, We Adore Thee  HYMN TO JOY

Teach us how to love each other,
Lift us to the joy divine.

52.  My Jesus, I Love Thee  GORDON

I’ll love Thee in life, I will love Thee in death,
And praise Thee as long as Thou lendest me breath.

53.  I Will Sing of My Redeemer 

How the victory He giveth
Over sin, and death, and hell.

54.  Stricken, Smitten and Afflicted  O MEIN JESU, ICH MUSS STERBEN  Wow. This hymn. Oh, my.

Ye who think of sin but lightly nor suppose the evil great
Here may view its nature rightly, here its guilt may estimate.
Mark the Sacrifice appointed, see who bears the awful load;
‘Tis the Word, the Lord’s Anointed, Son of Man and Son of God.

55.  Christ, the Lord, Is Risen Today  EASTER HYMN  Belt this one out at the top of your lungs!

Lives again our glorious King; Alleluia!
Where, O death, is now thy sting? Alleluia!
Once he died, our souls to save; Alleluia!
Where thy victory, O grave? Alleluia!

What are a few of your favorites?


Okay, I’ve already realized a few glaring omissions. Humor me?

♥ To God Be the Glory (we sang this at our wedding)
♥ Blessed Assurance
♥ Before Thee Let My Cry Come Near (Psalm 119 X)

thank you!



No Dark Valley

I am unenthusiastic about contemporary Christian fiction.

I’m not sure how this title ended up on my shelf, but I  gave it a go.  No Dark Valley is a phrase from a hymn (There’ll be no dark valley when Jesus comes to gather his loved ones home).  As a resolute lover of robust hymns, I found the best part of No Dark Valley to be Turner’s employing hymn phrases into chapter titles and into her prose, e.g. Ten Thousand Charms; Where Bright Angel Feet Have Trod;  Some Melodious Sonnet; Frail Children of Dust; And Grace Will Lead Me Home.  I’m often snipping little phrases from hymns for a bouquet of words.  This, alone, made the book worth reading.

There was a laugh out loud moment: … Grandmother’s pastor, who seemed to be trying to depict the concept of eternality by the length of his prayer

The protagonist, Celia, is a director of an art gallery.  The last five books I’ve read have referenced pieces of art, a delightful rabbit trail. No Dark Valley paired paintings and poems inspired by the paintings, a worthy exploration.  Here is Delmore Schwartz’s poem Seurat’s Sunday Afternoon Along the Seine; Cathy Song’s poem Girl Powdering Her Neck based on a Kitagawa Utamaro print; a Charles DeMuth, William Carlos William pairing.

I liked the hymn phrases and fine art references.  When she isn’t highlighting fine art, Turner pokes some fun at kitsch: Their idea of good art was sticking a calendar picture or an old greeting card inside a frame from Kmart.  And later: Her idea of good art was the newest Precious Moments figurine.

But the writing did not win me.  The reader is told in almost every chapter about Celia’s angst and remorse; the subtlety of showing Celia’s feelings by her facial expressions, position of her hands, physical responses would have been better. That, along with a predictable storyline and wooden characterization, haven’t changed my opinion of contemporary Christian fiction.