Monday, March 23, 2015

The Hymn I Did Not Like

The survey came to me from the denomination, as surveys so often do.  We're Presbyterian, after all, and we're all about that data, 'bout that data, 'bout that data.

It was exploring the intent of my little church to switch up hymnals, to move from the "blue" hymnals that were brand-spankin' new way back when in the 1990s.  Now, we've got a choose-your-own-color jobbie that's been recently hatched, and they're eager to get it out there.

Some folks, the people who grump about everything, will search eagerly for the hymns that are missing.  Outrage!  My favorite one is MISSING!  Heresy!   But there is, as Jesus once purportedly said in that utterly uncanonical movie, no pleasing some people.

As I wrote when I first encountered "Glory To God," it's a perfectly lovely little collection of sacred music.

Old gospel standards, classic Reformed hymns, Taize music, and a sampling of the better contemporary Christian music?  Excellent.  When I went through it looking for stuff I'd happily have my tiny church sing--because I'd like to sing it myself--I found well over a hundred songs I knew and liked.  That's plenty of Jesus-song to go around.

But when the survey asked me to comment, I realized there was not space there for me to rant about my one issue with it.

There was just one section of the hymnal that bugged me.  Really, genuinely pushed my buttons.  It's deeply heretical, representing a worldview that may never, ever, ever been part of any collection of Presbyterian sacred music before.  It possibly represents an unacceptable conforming of our sacred musical tradition to the blight of modern culture, and if left unchecked, it will potentially corrupt the very soul of the faith.

Alright, sure, that's more than a bit hyperbolic, but I'm trying to generate the requisite sense of net-rage umbrage here.

I am talking, of course, about the page after page of copyright information, permissions, and licensing legalese at the end of the collection.

This--whether in the context of hymns or Christian Contemporary Music--rubbed me a little wrong.  Worrying about copyright on songs of praise to the Creator of the Universe just seems off to my soul.  Attribution?  Sure.  Absolutely.

But ownership?  It seems dissonant, as if any Christian would ever be within their purpose as a follower of Jesus of Nazareth if they sued other followers of Jesus to prevent them from singing and sharing sacred songs.  And here, a whole section, dedicated to the idea of ownership over sacredness.

Grump grump grump, I went.

It got me to wondering: is this new?  I mean, really new?  That I've got a bug in my bonnet about it doesn't mean it's a real thing.  Is this one of those things we do now because the church is increasingly steeped in the values of the marketplace?  Is this yet another manifestation of the ever spreading blight of profit-driven AmeriChrist, Inc.?  Or am I just reading things in?

So I asked my church.  Not the people.  The church building itself.

My church remembers things, it does.  It's an old space, filled with memories of what the church has been.

I have bookshelves in my office, ones that contain hymnals that run waaay back.  Not all the way back to the 1847 founding of the church, but a ways.  So I looked in each of those, to see what they had to say.  I started with the familiar  The Presbyterian Hymnal, deep blue from 1990, which we're using now.  No such section, although there's a wee paragraph in tiny text at the beginning, and little tiny "permissions" text at the bottom of each page.  Copyright is there.

Ratchet it back to The Hymnbook, dating from  1955, back when we were the Presbyterian Church in the United States and the United Presbyterian Church in the USA.  It's paradoxically Red in that Red Scare era.

But not communist, evidently, because there's the copyright notice, comrade.  Same deal as the 1990 hymnal, just a note in a wee font, and a tiny little blurp of text with each hymn where needed.

Then, back to the deep-green-blue of The Hymnal of 1933, which...wait.  Huh.  Just like the brand spankin' new hymnal of 2015, there's a section in it, a couple of pages long, acknowledging permissions from dozens of individuals and publishers.  Well, golly.

But my tiny church was a "Southern" church, in keeping with the very Southern town in which it was founded, so we've also got the deep blue and bold-Gothic-lettered The Presbyterian Hymnal rising out of the Southern church from 1927, plus a dozen or more copies of the words-only mini-editions.  That gets by with one short paragraph on p. II, and some brief attributions.

But wait! There's more!

My office is in an 1827 building, so there are older music books still, ones used by my church in the late 19th and very early 20th century.

There it is, Gospel Hymns No.s 5 & 6, plus several pocket-sized versions, dating back to 1892.  There's a little note, handwritten in a neat cursive pencil, in the front of one.

"Please do not remove from the Presbyterian Sunday School," it says.

The date: September 19, 1902.  113 years ago.

There, on the same page, there's copyright notice, three lines long, small print.

And older still, from 1880, A Selection of Spiritual Songs for the Sunday-School, the cover faded and worn from use.  It's battered and coming apart, and two of the three copies in my office have no remaining copyright pages.  But there, on a worn-away front page in the most complete copy, an announcement:

"THE PUBLISHERS deem it necessary to call attention the the fact that a large part of the tunes and musical arrangements of this book are owned by them..."   And so on, and so forth.

So this has been around for a while, evidently.  The "copyright song" is an older hymn than I thought, one of the few that have carried through the over a century and a half of my church-memory.

It's been the case ever since publishers have printed sacred books as a business, meaning all the way back deep into the modern and industrial era.  Not all the way back, of course.  The Gutenberg Bible makes no mention of it, but then again, Gutenberg did kind of have a corner on the market.

Perhaps my reaction is a strange function of my own newness, of being part of an era when music is everywhere and accessible.  Music itself, almost anything you can imagine, is just a quick skip over to Youtube away.  And sheet music/arrangements?  Those can be found too, right there on the interwebs.

Or perhaps it's that I also spend so much mental time back in the first few centuries of the church, when the passing along of sacred song and story was entirely separate from commerce.  I doubt the original author of that little hymn that the Apostle Paul republished in the 13th chapter of 1 Corinthians was too put out about lack of attribution.

In that peculiar fusion of the ancient and the net-age, the idea of ownership still jars strangely against both the ease with which we now share and the fierce, unfettered energies of the early church.

But the songs still get shared, I suppose.  Which is what counts.