I’m not a particularly dedicated church-goer but I do appreciate church music, and recognize the affect it has had on me personally and on American culture. So one Sunday, after attending the church in which I grew up, I started playing with the idea of compiling a list of my Top 10 hymns.
Well, forget that.
These may not be my Top 10, but there are 10 of them, and they are personal favorites:
I’ll Fly Away (Albert Brumley, 1929): The most-recorded gospel song of all-time. I actually wasn’t very familiar with “I’ll Fly Away” until hearing the Kossoy Sisters’ 1956 recording of it in Oh Brother, Where Art Thou? The Kossoy Sisters version was replaced on the film’s soundtrack album by a new recording by Gillian Welch and Alison Krause. Brumley said he worked out the lyrics to the song while picking cotton on his family’s LeFlore County, Oklahoma, farm.
This Is My Father’s World (Maltbie D. Babcock, 1901: This is one of those hymns that has remained in my consciousness since childhood. Why, I can’t say for sure. There is something about the line “In the rustling grass I hear him pass” that just won’t go away. The lyrics stem from Babcock’s hikes near Lake Ontario in upstate New York.
Simple Gifts (Joseph Brackett 1848): I may not have a top 10, but I do have a top two or three, and this Shaker meditation is one of them: “‘Tis the gift to be simple, ‘Tis the gift to be free/’Tis the gift to come down where we ought to be.'” Popularized by Aaron Copeland in “Appalachian Spring,” the song — for so it is described by Shaker historians — deftly encapsulates the sect’s philosophy.
A Mighty Fortress (Martin Luther, 1529): Translated into English from the original German more than 70 times, “Ein feste Berg ist unser Gott” may be the most historically significant hymn ever written. Called the “Battle Hymn of the Republic of the Reformation,” it became the anthem of early-day Lutheranism and later for all Protestantism. The hymn also took on nationalist tones for those seeking freedom from the Holy Roman Empire, with Swedish forces singing it before battle during the Thirty Years War.
Leaning on the Everlasting Arms (Elisha Hoffman and Anthony J. Showalter, 1887): I loved this hymn even before Iris DeMent’s driven, haunting recording for the Coen Brothers’ True Grit. This was one the congregation of our little church used to really get into. The hymn was inspired by letters of condolence written by Showalter to two recently widowed young men. Showalter wrote the refrain, Hoffman the verses.
Silent Night (Franz Xaver Gruber and Joseph Mohr, 1818): Composed in rural Austria by a young priest and a schoolmaster, “Stille Nacht, heilige Nacht” has been translated from the original German into some 140 languages. Famously, German, French and English troops joined in singing it during the Christmas truce of 1914. Simple, direct, the perfect Christmas hymn.
His Eye is on the Sparrow (Civilla D. Martin and Charles H. Martin, 1905): A hymn of solace for the oppressed and downtrodden and often associated with the Civil Rights movement, the lyrics were inspired by an infirm white couple named Doolittle who, in the words of Civilla Martin, remained optimistic and happy despite their troubles. Asked how they maintained their spirits, Mrs. Doolittle replied: “His eye is on the sparrow and I know he watches me.”
In the Sweet By and By (Joseph P. Webster and S. Fillmore Bennett, 1868): Written in 30 minutes in an Elkhorn, Wisconsin, pharmacy by a manic depressive (Webster) and his friend (Bennett). One of those hymns that invites the congregation to really let go.
Amazing Grace (John Newton 1779): Written by a slave trader-turned-clergyman to accompany a sermon, “Amazing Grace” appeared first in England but found popularity in the United States during the Second Great Awakening. Originally, the hymn was probably recited or read without music, and for its first five decades was set to numerous tunes until a Baptist song leader named William “Singing Billy” Walker matched it with a traditional melody called “New Britain” in 1835. Cherokees sang a version of “Amazing Grace” translated into their language by Samuel Worcester on the Trail of Tears.
How Great Thou Art (Carl Gustav Boberg, 1885): We didn’t have many records in my house when I was growing up, but we had one of George Beverly Shea singing “How Great Thou Art.” The song is so associated with Shea that he almost ruined it for everybody else — which hasn’t prevent it from being record more than 1,700 times. Based on a Swedish hymn written in 1885 and paraphrased into English from a Russian translation by British missionary Stuart K. Hine, the song was virtually unknown in the United States until sung by Shea at a 1957 Billy Graham Crusade in Madison Square Garden.