Those Old Time Gospel Songs

I grew up in a small ninety-member church associated with an acapella worship tradition. No instruments, organs or praise bands. Just songbooks and four-part harmony.

On Sundays we had two services. The morning service and then a second one in the evening around 6:30. Given that our max attendance was ninety the gathering at night was only about twenty or so. The diehards. We'd have a song service, a short sermon and then offer the Lord's Supper to those who were unable to attend the morning service.

Some nights, mainly during the summer, we'd use the Sunday evening service to do a song service. We'd sing for the entire hour. We'd call out song numbers from the hymnal and then the song leader would lead them. The fact that I, as a younger person, could call out a song that we all would sing thrilled me. I guess it was the participatory aspect. But it was also affirming to call out a song that everyone was excited to sing.

These are deep, powerful memories for me. Singing gospel songs in a small church, fans a-flapping (there was no air conditioning), on warm summer evenings. I fell in love with church on those summer evenings. I have no idea why. Most of my peers hated church, Sunday evenings in particular. What kid wants to go to church twice in one day? But I loved it.

We don't sing those songs much anymore in my church. We don't pull out the songbooks. We have PowerPoint now and the songs we sing are generally borrowed (and translated from instrumental to acapella arrangements) from the worship albums of the Christian music industry.

That's not a judgment. Just a descriptive observation.

On Monday nights at the prison bible study I help lead there is a transition from Herb to me. (We basically do two different lessons back to back.) And during that transition I've started getting out the songbooks and singing for 15-20 minutes or so. And as there are no instruments in the prison chapel we sing acapella.

Most of the inmates were not raised in the church. So they know only a few of these old gospel songs. And so it has been a great joy of mine to introduce them to all the songs of my youth. And they love it. Every week they ask me to teach them a new song. And some of these songs I haven't sung for decades. The last time I sang some of these songs I was sitting in my little church on a warm summer night when I was in high school.

So I look at the song and try to remember the opening notes. (I can't read music. I learned by listening.) I hum to myself, searching for the tune.

And then I find it. And then a flood of memory, with so much emotion. The whole song comes rushing forward. It was there, all along, deep in my memory, deep in my bones. And I start to sing. The guys listen, then begin to join in with verse two.
Oh, how sweet to walk in this pilgrim way,
Leaning on the everlasting arms;
Oh, how bright the path grows from day to day,
Leaning on the everlasting arms.

Leaning, leaning, safe and secure from all alarms;
Leaning, leaning, leaning on the everlasting arms.
And as we sing I'm a kid again, sitting on a pew with a songbook in my lap, and calling out hymn numbers.

Singing again on a warm summer night.

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13 thoughts on “Those Old Time Gospel Songs”

  1. Thank you so much for writing this down. We do share the experience of the power of hymns - it seems to me just as moving and mighty as praying together. The only difference is that every one of the congregation can be an active part of it.

    When I started as an interims-pastor in my recent congregation about two years ago, I made the decision, not to make use of those "power-point - worship-album - christian industry" - stuff. As I am in the privileged position of having the kids from the local primary school with me every friday morning for a short service, I am using the songbooks with them. Now they have - just as you did - their favourites. AND we are singing them in the afternoon, when they come to their playing group... They want to sing them - they feel the community.

    Thank you once more for making me conscious of this...

  2. Thanks Richard, you took me back to my youth in the coC in West Virginia. Please, please keep up the good work.

  3. I love and miss the old songs too. Several years ago, Highland had a couple of Wednesday night singing services of requests from the hymnal. Everyone was so excited and engaged. It was the most sense of community I have experienced there.

  4. The old hymns are true poetry. Many praise bands, on the other hand, are "bubble gum", making it too easy for the bands to slip in a few songs they wrote themselves, most of which are not very good.

  5. This is why the entire soundtrack from the Coen Brothers' 2010 remake of True Grit is so good, including Iris Dement's haunting version of Leaning on the Everlasting Arms.

  6. As a child in the 1970's, I too sang these songs on not-always-so-warm Sunday evenings in Thunder Bay, Ontario Canada. In our small group, children always had a chance to request songs. Adults in the group tolerated our predictable requests for Stamps-Baxter standards (how many do you know off the top of your head?). The group was small enough that each voice was known and necessary, part of a beautiful, tattered offering. As a child, I listened to the hymns and felt the meaning of the lyrics as prayers and the music and lyrics have formed me. As a young adult, stressing about university exams, I would take a break by taking my dog for a walk and singing hymns and now I sing these songs to my children as they fall asleep at night. Sometimes, I think about how these songs link me to people, Christians I don't even know, but with whom I share the cherishing of music that is so much more than music.

  7. As our group was quite small and I was the PK and musical-leaning I was thrust into a sort of leadership role at an early age leading these hymns. Explains why I have no fear of getting up in front of any size group of folks and singing my lungs out now...

    We recently did something similar to this at the church I attend now, on a couple of Wednesday nights in a row. While it did bring back quite a rush of memories at the same time I noted the gaping chasm of the theology ascribed to by many of those old hymns and where I'm at now. Some of 'em I just can't, in good (or "current") conscience, sing any longer. I guess it's become the musical soundtrack to my theological evolution. (Wait, is that possible?)

  8. I grew up Catholic, specifically with the guitar mass of the 1970s. And I loved it. So much that a few weeks ago when I was given the opportunity to perform a song with my Sunday school class in front of my UCC church, it was like a long lost dream come true. But . . .

    It was probably twenty years ago when I first heard the Alabama Sacred Heart Singers on Harry Smith's Anthology of American Folk Music. It was my first exposure to the acapella worship tradition and it blew my mind! Since then I've managed to hear lots of primitive baptist gospel, shape note gospel, etc. and it's become some of my favorite music. The guitar mass was cool . . . but this was way cooler.

    Lots of people love worship bands. And because I'm a musician, they kind of assume that I'll love their church because the band is really awesome. But for me, I prefer 18th and 19th century hymns, and acapella music to any of that stuff. I can see how the rockin' worship band is uplifting to people. But to me, the more traditional stuff is both grounding and uplifting. And I need both.

  9. What song book are you using? I would love to re-introduce some of these songs to my church.

  10. I'm not sure. I'll have to check next Monday when back out a the prison. But the songbooks of my youth, in the Churches of Christ, were Sacred Selections (by Crum) and Songs of the Church (by Howard).

    When Church of Christ people say "728B" they are referring to a page number in Songs of the Church (the song "Our God He is Alive").

  11. I just returned from my silent retreat and there are 3 times over my stay when we break the silence together and worship. We attend a church with mostly young families and quite the band, so there aren't the older voices singing with us on Sundays. I sat with tears running down my face last as I was serenaded by these precious older voices, the women with the warble as they reach for those high notes and the men with the bass as only decades on earth can bring. I don't miss a lot of the things from my old Plymouth Brethren days, but the singing the old hymns together takes me right back.

  12. I was attending one of those churches with the powerpoint and the bubble-gum pop-worship songs, in a room rented in a local building. At the end of the service one day, my husband and I stepped outside of our room to hear hymns in four-part harmony being sung 3 floors up from where we were, thunderously and gloriously.

    We meandered upstairs to see what this was about, and found a Sacred Harp convention being held on the top floor. It was literally the most beautiful music I'd ever heard. I couldn't believe I'd been sitting like a fool three floors down all morning, singing Jesus-is-my-boyfriend songs. We go to the conventions now, when they're in town.

    The old hymns and the old musical traditions have so much beauty and power. Young people love them just as much as older people do, if they have an opportunity to learn to sing them right. I don't know why we've all decided the power-point pop route is the way to go....

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