“In the Sweet By and By”   4 comments

Above:  The Communion of Saints

(An Image in the Public Domain)

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While growing up in rural United Methodist congregations in southern Georgia, U.S.A., I realized that I did not fit in.  Lacking a proper frame of reference for years, I could not diagnose the issue properly until I became keenly aware of good Episcopal Church liturgy, a la The Book of Common Prayer (1979) and The Hymnal 1982.  I had latent High Church tendencies yet was in a very Low Church setting.

And the music did not help.  Southern Gospel tended to be prominent.  The diction was usually abhorrent, choirs seldom blended, and, in one church, loud and nasal singing was commonplace.  I still have traumatic aural memories.

So I was glad to convert to The Episcopal Church, bow to altars and passing processional crosses, and sing more hymns which sounded good with a proper organ.  From time to time the old hymnody–the one I fled–follows me, even into The Episcopal Church.   If I have advance notice, I can arrange to attend a different service, one without music, perhaps.  My attitude toward certain Low Church Protestant music is reflexively negative.

Much of the problem of Southern Gospel, I am convinced, is the way in which most or many people who sing it sing it.  Often the songs are too fast and inappropriately happy.  Even the sad songs sound happy sometimes.  Consider, for example, “In the Sweet By and By,” which is about the afterlife in Heaven.  Here are the words:

1.  There’s a land that is fairer than day,

And by faith we can see it afar;

For the Father waits over the way,

To prepare us a dwelling-place there.

Chorus:

In the sweet by and by,

We shall meet on that beautiful shore;

In the sweet by and by,

We shall meet on that beautiful shore.

2.  We shall sing on that beautiful shore

The melodious songs of the blest,

And our spirits shall sorrow no more,

Nor a sigh for the blessing of rest.

Repeat the Chorus

3.  To our bountiful Father above,

We will offer our tribute of praise,

For the glorious gift of His love,

And the blessings that hallow our days.

Repeat the Chorus

The lyrics reflect a sense of longing, as if one misses departed friends and loved ones yet anticipates reuniting with them after one’s own death.  Thus the hymn contains both grief and hope.  Yet I have almost always heard this sung as if it is all happiness.

This most recent Memorial Day morning, I heard part of Performance Today on my local public radio station.  The program that day was a concert by Cantus, a men’s choral ensemble.  Their concert included a slow and a cappella version of “In the Sweet By and By.”  It was simultaneously mournful and hopeful.  It was hauntingly beautiful.  The diction was flawless.  And I could hear the sparse harmonies and the interplay among the voice parts.  This was what I wished I had heard while growing up.

I wonder what other hymns and songs I might like if only I could hear them performed properly.

KENNETH RANDOLPH TAYLOR

AUGUST 23, 2011 COMMON ERA

THE FEAST OF SAINT ROSE OF LIMA, ROMAN CATHOLIC MYSTIC

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Adapted from this post:

http://neatnik2009.wordpress.com/2011/08/23/in-the-sweet-by-and-by/

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