Thursday, March 11, 2010

Humming for Change

If you've read this blog very much you have probably figured out that I know a lot of hymns and gospel songs. I am finally old enough to “get it” about these songs of faith. I’ve commented before how my brain pulls one out of the recesses of my memory. Yesterday it was The Church’s One Foundation. This morning it started with He Leadeth Me while still in the shower. Then it quickly turned to the peppier In My Heart Their Rings a Melody.

I can remember trying to track the words in the hymnal with my index finger when I first started to read. I remember wondering what the byonder was when we would sing that the roll would be called up byonder.  I don’t know if it was the mix of the Norwegian accent I heard or something else,  but I heard it byonder. Of course, it wasn't when, it was Ven the roll. To this day, while I sing without the accent, my heart hears the strong Norwegian accent when it hears the hymns.

We had a choir in our Norwegian church. The first choir director I remember was a tall skinny Norwegian man.. His wife was the pianist. No one could play the piano like she did. She was also my first piano teacher. Unfortunately, they moved away and I lost her as a teacher. I never have learned to play well.

This church believed so much in democracy that everything was an elected position, including choir director. I remember my mother coming home from the annual business meeting to tell me that someone had beat out the tall Norwegian in the election. This new director, of course Norwegian, played the musical saw. Yes, the same type of saw that cuts wood. He would bring it with him to every meeting just as others brought their mandolins and guitars. He was amazing.

This choir had the richest harmony. I always dreamed of being in the Salem choir. I didn’t reach the required age of 16 until I lived in Missouri. They sang out of the hymnal. I don’t remember cantatas from them or the like. Nevertheless, their rendition of Wonderful Grace of Jesus is still the most beautiful I have ever heard. Rich Norwegian male voices such as the Titland brothers had would blend to make the most magnificent sounds.  

Long after I thought my dream of being in the Salem choir had died, I got to sing with it at the 75th anniversary of the church. Joyce Paulsen, who always called me “re-joyce” included me as the choir sang Wonderful Grace of Jesus for the last time. Most of that choir is now in heaven.

I was having a conversation the other day with someone about how I came to realize my Wesleyan roots.  Norwegian Pentecostalism is firmly rooted in Wesley. (I did a presentation for class reflecting on my roots, if you’d like to see it, you can see it here.) My realization came in what seemed like a very unsophisticated song. As the use of hymns was waning and choruses replacing them, we’d march around the church shaking hands and exchanging hugs to this ditty:

I care not what church you belong to
Just as long as for Calvary you stand
And tonight if your heart is as my heart
You’re my brother (or sister) so give me your hand

While it seemed as sort of a cute way to get people to shake hands, I used to tell people it summed up my theology.

I was reading a book by Alice Wynkoop, The Theology of Love.  As I was reading, I came upon a quote from Wesley. It was the same words as this song.  Wesley and I agreed.

As I told this story to that person that day, he said: what you hum you become. That’s true. Those words so rich from the red hymnal at Salem, replaced later by the blue hymnal in other churches, the melodies that ring in my heart as I hear Salem’s choir in my ear, all of them have been part of the transformation process.

When I lived in Connecticut I always had multiple children and often their friends in the station wagon or van. It took several years before we had a cassette player in one of those vehicles so I was dependent on the radio. There is a Christian radio station in CT, WIHS (We’re In His Service – 104.9 on your FM dial). This station played only hymns and traditional church music along with a lot of preaching and the classic radio program "Unshackled." Even though most were switching over to choruses and contemporary music, they played hymns. I really thought they were “old fashioned.” I wanted to bounce around to latest contemporary music.

My children would ask me: why do you listen to that “boring stuff?” I would reply that while it wasn’t my favorite, it was all we had to chose from for Christian music. I said what I feed my soul with will affect who I am. Whatever your taste in music may be, and mine includes such diversity as Matisyahu, remember - 

What you hum you become


  1. Hi Joyce,

    WIHS has a new manager and I am not sure if he is influencing it or not, but I am hearing a lot of Brooklyn Tabernacle, Carmen and other contemporary artists whom I recognize though they are never identified. Definitely, a Pentecostal flavor coming through. And they are doing worship material that we have sung at CCC.


  2. Joyce, thank you for giving me a heads up on this post. I've heard the Titland brothers' name. I'm sure my dad and my aunt would know them. I'll have to ask.

    I love the Norwegian accents and also remember so well how they sang certain words. I also remember we'd laugh when they'd say "yellow" for jello.

    There is a book I read almost every year called "First We Have Coffee" by Margaret Jensen. Have you heard of it? I love it and it reminds me of my grandparents so much. I always remember coffee breath too. :)


  3. Debbie - Yes, I've read the book. It is wonderful.
    Up here they do the Church Basement Ladies things and they talk a lot about yellow and hot dish. Last year we went to a 17 Mai event and the theme was all around yellow and hot dish -
    Love it!


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