Monday, January 07, 2013

Old hymns, new music: Indelible Grace, "On Jordan's Stormy Banks," a college youth ministry and the transcendence of cultural blind spots

I've been singing different shape-note versions of "On Jordan's Stormy Banks I Stand" for 30 years now, and the other day I came across a contemporary version on YouTube with a melody that's so true to the spirit of the orginal, I thought it was an authentic 19th-century American folk hymn. It wasn't. It was written in 1997 for a campus ministry at Belmont University in Nashville, and I was blown away by it.

Here's the clip. It shows Matthew Smith and Indelible Grace performing "On Jordan's Stormy Banks I Stand" at Blacknall Memorial Presbyterian Church in Durham, N.C., on April 24, 2007.

Not bad for a campus ministry.

Of course Belmont is just down the street from Nashville's Music Row, and it has a well-known and highly regarded music program. Starting in 1995, the Rev. Kenneth Twit started an on-campus group called the Reformed University Fellowship, affiliated with the theologically conservative Presbyterian Church in America. He gave some of the singer-songwriter students old-fashioned hymn texts, by Isaac Watts and Charles Wesley and the like, and suggested they write contemporary music for them.

Not surprisingly, they were more than equal to the task.

By the year 2000, the RUF students had formed a performance group called Indelibile Grace and were cutting CDs. One of their first songs was "On Jordan's Stormy Banks I Stand," with music written by Christopher Miner and copyrighted in his name in 1997.

Indelible Grace is more of a ministry than a band, and its music is freely available on line (for personal use, of course, and for churches with a CCLI license - click here for the details). There's also a YouTube clip showing the lyrics in sync with the music, at as well as lead sheets and chord charts in the original key of F# and the more amateur-friendly key of D on the RUF Hymnbook Online.

Indelible Grace is more of a loose collective of Belmont students and alumni than a band, but several of its members have gone on to careers in the music industry. And in 2010 they came together for a Hymn Sing at Nashville's Ryman Auditorium.

In a spin-off video called Roots and Wings, singer-songwriters Matthew Smith, Sandra McCracken and her husband Dereck Webb, among others, recalled how RUF pastor Twit handed the students photocopies of old lyrics and got them to writing hymns, and how Indelible Grace and their independent careers alike grew out of it.

McCrackin also spoke of what the old hymns offer musicians in the 21st century.

"I think the hymns just have more depth, they just have more transcendence," McCrackin said on the video. "Because so many of these texts were written years and years ago, the transcend a lot of our cultural blind spots."

In an October 2007 article for the denominational magazine byFaith, Melissa Morgan interviewed Smith and said his "journey parallels many in today's postmodern culture, those who crave authenticity over affectation, mystery over order, community over individualism, and substance over ephemera."

And in a perceptive blog post called "Hymns for the Present Tense" Philip Sasser of The Oxford American suggested in a particularly nuanced way, how music like Indelible Grace's can transcend some of our cultural blind spots:

Hymns—like certain kinds of primitive blues or country music—both attract and repel modern listeners. In the music’s sorrow and spitting-out of pain and suffering, we feel our common humanity and, beyond that, our souls somehow essentialized. But we also feel our historical isolation and our material privilege. We are cut off from the particulars of the world that those songs embody. ... We are not, after all, sharecroppers. Not even the sons of sharecroppers. But we go on listening to Son House and Uncle Dave Macon, and singing the hymns of Isaac Watts because we intuitively sense that, external optics aside, the rich material life we live is not really so different from a sharecropper’s once we get down to the bones. Our hearts are the same, we think, and so, too, our fears, our depression, anxiety, heartbreak. In the end, Son House didn’t sing the way he did because he suffered more than anyone else, but because he expressed it better.
And the same would go for Isaac Watts or Samuel Stennett.

Footnote. Indelible Grace has been criticized for writing new settings for the old hymns. While that's largely true of its performance numbers, the RUF Hymnbook Online contains guitar lead sheets and chord charts for hymns set to their traditional melodies. In fact, the first hymn in its directory is "A Mighty Fortress Is Our God." And Indelible Grace still performs traditional numbers - e.g. this clip of Matthew Smith and Indelible Grace performing "Nothing But The Blood" in its concert at Blacknall Memorial Presbyterian Church in Durham.

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