Song of the Week: My Song Is Love Unknown

Easter BloomsIt’s Good Friday here in Tucson. Outside my office window, the blue palo verde trees are alive with buds of yellow, their annual bloom timed almost in celebration of Easter weekend.

It’s always a bit difficult for me to write about Easter. Putting into words an expression of the Divine has been mankind’s great struggle for centuries, across a multitude of disparate fields ranging from art to law.

But as a recovering choir member, my favorite reflections on God have always been through music. I’ve only recently discovered the Pax Plena Song of the Week, but it has made a significant impact on the way I think about Jesus, and his death on this Good Friday, in particular.

My Song is Love Unknown is not a new hymn. Written in 1664 by Samuel Crossman, an influential Anglican minister and eventual Dean of Bristol Cathedral, the original music was set to a tune called “Wesley” from a much earlier era. But the most famous iteration of the hymn’s music was composed by John Ireland in 1918 – a tune aptly titled, “Love Unknown.”

Crossman’s words, in essence, are a collection of ruminations on Jesus’s death. As with most hymns, and much of aesthetics generally, the beauty of the lyrics is their simplicity.

Seven stanzas strong, the song begins with a meditation exploring one’s personal insignificance vis-à-vis Jesus’s timeless act of sacrifice. In the opening strains, Crossman wonders, O who am I, that for my sake my Lord should take frail flesh and die? Although simply stated, Crossman’s question is really the mystery of the Gospels. Indeed, this ‘love unknown’ is exactly what humanity still hasn’t quite figured out, some two thousand years removed from the event.

Other stanzas of the song include refelctions about the trial of Jesus (stanza 3), and the freeing of Barabas instead of Jesus (stanza 6). But the most interesting aspect of the hymn is the theme of friendship that runs throughout the lyrics.

Toward the begining of the piece (stanza 2), Crossman acknowledges Jesus’s Divine origins, but rather than leaving the Son of God in abstraction, Crossman simply calls him “my friend.” But O, my friend, my friend indeed, who at my need his life did spend. In concluding the piece (stanza 7), Crossman again returns to the theme of friendship. After proclaiming the risen Christ, Crossman is not content to leave Jesus to the Heavens, but describes Jesus as simply a “friend” in whose company he longs to spend his days. This is my friend in whose sweet praise, I all my days could gladly spend.

The compelling thing about Crossman’s emphasis of friendship is that when two people are friends they bring no obligation into the relationship. Typically, a person considers another to be a friend because they want to, not because they have to.

When this dynamic is applied to a relationship with Jesus, and by extension God, the result is a beautiful expression of ‘love unknown.’ I suppose, in this way, Crossman actually gives definition to the abstract. The ‘love unknown’ in Crossman’s hymn becomes something that is quite familiar: the Love Unknown is the relationship of friendship itself – one between man and He who came to die for all mankind. And assuming one has free agency, one loves Christ because one wants to, not because one has to.

In all, the song is a perfect song of the week for this Good Friday, and Easter weekend. In keeping with Crossman’s theme, my Friends, please enjoy a beautiful performance of the hymn below by the Choir of St. Martin-in-the-Fields, Trafalgar Square, London.

My Song Is Love Unknown
By Samuel Crossman (1664)
Arr. by John Ireland (1918)

My song is love unknown,
My Saviour’s love to me;
Love to the loveless shown,
That they might lovely be.
O who am I, that for my sake
My Lord should take frail flesh and die?

 

He came from His blest throne
Salvation to bestow;
But men made strange, and none
The longed-for Christ would know:
But O! my Friend, my Friend indeed,
Who at my need His life did spend.

 

Sometimes they strew His way,
And His sweet praises sing;
Resounding all the day
Hosannas to their King:
Then “Crucify!” is all their breath,
And for His death they thirst and cry.

 

Why, what hath my Lord done?
What makes this rage and spite?
He made the lame to run,
He gave the blind their sight,
Sweet injuries! Yet they at these
Themselves displease, and ’gainst Him rise.

 

They rise and needs will have
My dear Lord made away;
A murderer they save,
The Prince of life they slay,
Yet cheerful He to suffering goes,
That He His foes from thence might free.

 

In life, no house, no home
My Lord on earth might have;
In death no friendly tomb
But what a stranger gave.
What may I say? Heav’n was His home;
But mine the tomb wherein He lay.

 

Here might I stay and sing,
No story so divine;
Never was love, dear King!
Never was grief like Thine.
This is my Friend, in Whose sweet praise
I all my days could gladly spend.


Song of the Week: Swanee River

The Pax Plena Song of the Week will doubtless be a familiar one in the great American songbook. Written by composer Stephen C. Coster in 1851, (Old Folks at Home) or Swanee River has long been a staple of American music.

Though the melody itself has been criticized for its supposedly racist undertones, the lyrics actually tell the story of world traveller long displaced from his home. Such a tale would be fairly innocuous, but for the African-American vernacular incorporated into the lyrics, and the use of the word “darkie,” presumably in reference to other Blacks in the chorus. As an example of Foster’s use of the African-American vernacular, in the original score, Foster used the words “ribber,” “ebber,” and “mudder,” to refer to the words river, ever, and mother respectively. While the move is decidedly politically incorrect, there really isn’t anything inherently racist, or even offensive about the song. In fact, even the use of the word ‘darkie’ can arguably be interpreted as an paean to inclusiveness – particularly when Foster could have used much more loaded “N-word.” As the platitude goes, context is crucial.

Controversy aside, what makes the song interesting is the soaring story the lyrics tell through Foster’s music. The song follows the plight of a wanderer who has travelled far away from home, only to realize that the grass isn’t necessarily greener elsewhere. As the music swells, the bard yearns for home, and the old folks, and brighter days past.

In truth, I suppose I hear some of my own thoughts when I listen to the piece. In many ways, having been removed from Cotton County, Oklahoma nearly ten years come September, I too feel a bit as if I have been ‘up and down the whole creation’ sadly roaming, longing for home all the while. What Foster manages to do is capture these sentiments in pithy language, setting them against one of the most emotional scores in music history.

And really that’s what makes a musical selection great: the best renditions take our unspoken thoughts and put them to a melody that captures our feelings at a particular moment in time. Listening to the song, one can nigh feel tears welling up from the deep within as the singer longs for sunny days spent with siblings, and with a mother that departed this life long ago. Though the lyrics are the vehicle for delivery, the emotional punch is packed through foster’s arrangement.

With that, please enjoy, the Pax Plena Song of the Week, Swanee River. Lyrics and music appear below, and a series of performances of the piece follow.

8 Old Folks at Home

Bing Crosby is always the gold standard for any musical performance. Naturally, his rendition of Swanee River from the Kraft Music Hall Shows of the 1930s and 40s is stellar.

Aside from Crosby, the first notable performance of the song is actually an improvisational piece called the “Swanee River Boogie” performed by Albert Ammons. Ammons’s fingers tickle the ivories in a way that only a jazz musician can.

A second performance of the song is performed by Luca Sestak, a German teenager, and a certifiable, piano prodigy. Sestak’s performance is enough to make yours truly wish I were good at something – viz., anything.

One final, notable performance of Swanee River comes from the Alvin and the Chipmunks Show from the 1980s and 1990s. The trio perform a riff on the old minstrel performances of the 1850s, with Dave Seville playing the straight-laced interlocutor, and the Chipmunks playing a tripartite amalgam of Tambo and Bones.

This isn’t to say the clip is politically correct – in fact, it’s almost difficult to fathom any cartoon today producing similar programming – but the jokes are wonderfully terrible.

For example:

Dave: Good evening, Gentlemen. How are you feeling this evening?

Alvin: How am I feeling, Mr. Interlocutor?

Dave: That’s right, Alvin, how are you feeling?

Alvin: With my fingers, Mr. Interlocutor.

Chipmunks: Yuck, yuck, yuck, yuck.

 

Song of the Week: Make a Mistake

The Pax Plena Song of the Week reminds me of a steamy New Hampshire summer, and Fourth-of-Julys past spent along the Charles River in Boston. Released in 2003, Brad Paisley’s Make a Mistake was an instant favorite of mine the momenet I heard its ornate guitar work, and upbeat lyrics, lo so many years ago.

The tune is simple and easily sung, like most Brad Paisley tunes. But in many ways it’s exactly this simplicity of country music that makes it at all interesting.

Rant: Let’s face it, if you want to listen to generic pop music all you need to do is pirate the latest Justin Bieber album, or the musical excrement we call Lady Gaga. I say ‘pirate’ because if your music taste is poor enough to actually pay for it, well, I can’t help you and your head will probably explode once you click video below and listen to real music. Suffice it to say, given how country music is the veritable, polar opposite of everything “pop” and generic, it’s little surprise that yours truly gravitates towards it – not unlike Charlie Sheen gravitating toward a train wreck. Moths to a flame, as they say.

Anyway, the lyrics of the tune tell a simple story of a boy urging a girl he likes to “make a mistake” with him. It’s a bit cliché admittedly, but so is a lot of what we enjoy about relationships. We’ve all seen the movie where the lovelorn girl tells her beau their romance cannot be because it would surely be a mistake. Paisley’s song is the beau’s rebuttal.

Rescuing the song, perhaps from itself, is Paisley’s nothing less than amazing handiwork on the guitar. The strumming and picking on both the melody and the chorus are stellar. Until hearing this song, I honestly did not comprehend how fast the human finger can move. I thought my 10-words-per-minute typing was impressive.

At any rate, there’s only so much that I can say on behalf of a song that is eminently qualified to speak for itself. With that, please enjoy the extended edition of Make a Mistake, featuring an extra three minutes of Brad Paisley making the guitar his bitch.

 

Make a Mistake
By Brad Paisley

You over think things
You say what if we’re not meant to be
Well you know what so what
Make a mistake with me

Nobody goes through this life and does
Everything perfectly
We’re all gonna fail so you might as well
Make a mistake with me

Sometimes baby when we take
A chance that has this much at stake
We look back and in hindsight
What seemed wrong looks more like right

So I say worst case we’ll be left with
Lots of good memories
This chance we have well it’s worth that 
So make a mistake with me

I’m tellin’ you the right thing to do
Is make a mistake
Make a mistake
Make a mistake with me

Song of the Week: Ain’t Got a Dime to My Name

The Pax Plena Song of the Week became an instant favorite when I heard it while watching the 1942 Hollywood classic, Road to Morocco. By the by, Road to Morocco has been called the most stereotypical film ever to come out of Hollywood. This, of course, makes it a must-see film for anyone with a sense of humor.

Sung by the greatest singer that ever lived, Bing Crosby’s Ain’t Got a Dime to My Name is a whimsical musing on the things that are important in life. And despite grappling with fairly weighty subject matter, the song is wonderfully light and fun.

In the film, Crosby’s character Jeff Peters has just sold his cousin “Turkey” Jackson (Bob Hope) into slavery. Having been properly chastised by his long-dead aunt (also played by Bob Hope), Bing walks the streets of the nameless Moroccan city looking for his cousin. I won’t spoil the ending, but slavery has been mighty kind to Turkey.

Like any cousin with the voice of an angel, Jeff Peters begins to sing Turkey’s favorite song in order to draw Turkey’s attention, and facilitate his rescue. Enter the song of the week.

The genius of the Jimmy Van Heusen-arranged piece is that it combines Crosby as the lone soloist with an airy jazz assortment typical of the era’s big band music. This gives the song a smooth, swing feel that immediately focuses the ear on Crosby’s singing. From there, the performance is pretty much effortless, despite the silly dance number Bing performs in the middle of the song.

The piece itself has a balanced mix of brass and wind instruments, that are accented nicely by an up-tempo percussion line. The gem of the song is brief jazz harp solo after the fourth stanza.

The lyrics, written by Johnny Burke, tell the story of an impecunious person who ‘ain’t got a dime’ to his name. But rather than sinking into the depths of despair, the man glibly replies, “ho, hum.”

The incongruity of the response makes the song especially fantastic. For most, money will always be a worry of sorts. But the song reminds listeners that a ‘shady ole tree’ can be as tremendous a luxury as ‘shirts made of silk.’ The point is as well taken now as it was then. The roots of our consumer culture, apparently, run quite deep.

True to form, the song concludes with the simple observation that the singer will ‘never get rich.’ This prompts the greatest line of ho hums in the entire song.

Please, enjoy the Pax Plena song of the week, Ain’t Got a Dime to My Name (Ho Hum) as performed by Bing Crosby.

Ain’t Got a Dime to My Name
By Bing Crosby
Ain’t got a dime to my name,
What a terrible shame
Ho Hum, ho ho Hum.

Just found a hole in my shoe,
And my stockin’ shows through
Ho Hum, ho ho Hum.

I know that when you’re as free
As a bird in a tree, life is a wonderful whim.
Look at the crank with his dough in the bank,
Don’t you feel sorry for him?

Rolling along at a loss,
Never gathering moss,
Ho Hum, ho ho ho hoo Hum.

(Take it!)

I’m no terrific success,
I often worry I guess
Ho Hum, Wo ho ho Hum.

I like a shady ole’ tree,
Whats a matter with me?
Ho Hum, ho hohoho Hum.

There’s nothing quite as grotesque,
As a man at a desk,
Looking outside at the sun,
Shirts made of silk,
And a diet of milk,
Maybe he thinks he has fun.

I’ve got the vagabond itch,
Guess I’ll never get rich
Ho Hum, ho ho ho ho ho ho ho ho ho ho hmm…

Song of the Week: L-O-V-E

Since today is St. Valentine’s Day, I couldn’t think of a more appropriate song of the week than Nat “King” Cole’s L-O-V-E.

L-O-V-E was recorded on a sunny Wednesday afternoon on June 3, 1964 in Hollywood, CA. Having listened to the song in numerous movies, and in my own music collection, whenever I hear L-O-V-E I can’t help but think of a ride I once took down Hollywood Boulevard en route to the Capitol Records building, palm trees swaying against sun-drenched skies.

Isn’t this basically how love feels? Every cloud has beauty. Every kiss is an exciting mystery. It’s as if the skies were painted blue by God Himself, just for you. This feeling of wonderment associated with ‘love’ is what Cole’s song captures so well.

Oddly, what makes the piece work is the almost imperceptible crescendo of the music. As Cole begins his etymology of love, the initial lines are soft, if not sultry. As Cole delivers line after classic line, the music builds, interspersed by trombone vignettes, and trumpet solos. By the time Cole bellows that ‘love is made for me and you’ the music is enthralling enough to actually believe him.

The song itself is performed in a masterful legato style that is every bit as smooth as Cole’s baritone voice. The sound is one unique to the artist combining elements of Jazz with Cole’s provenance as a big band singer. At the end, the music almost has a dixieland band feel, concluding the song splendidly.

And what to say about the lyrics? The lyrics have really almost become their own definition of love. At the very least, it seems fair to say that Cole’s lyrics are the most famous acrostic in history. But perhaps the more intriguing part of the song is the way Cole’s simple melody has come to inform our consciousness of what love is and means.

Cole’s song reminds us that two people in love can ‘make it’, damn the odds and divorce rates. It reminds us that love is really all we can give to someone else. And it reinforces what is most important about our relationships. Sure, we can buy presents. We can devise exotic vacations. We can even share a delicious meal, or a fine wine. But all of these things involve something external to the self. Love, on the other hand, is all we can actually give of ourselves to another.

With that thought in mind, just because I ‘love’ my readers, please enjoy this very special Valentine’s Day song of the week, L-O-V-E as performed by Nat “King” Cole.

L-O-V-E
By Nat King Cole

L is for the way you look at me 
O is for the only one I see 
V is very, very extraordinary 
E is even more than anyone that you adore can…

Love is all that I can give to you 
Love is more than just a game for two 
Two in love can make it 
Take my heart and please don’t break it 
Love was made for me and you

L is for the way you look at me 
O is for the only one I see 
V is very, very extraordinary 
E is even more than anyone that you adore can…

Love is all that I can give to you 
Love is more than just a game for two 
Two in love can make it 
Take my heart and please don’t break it 
Love was made for me and you 
Love was made for me and you 
Love was made for me and you