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The Sun-Bright Road of Calvary

29 Sep

To listen to On the Sun-Bright Road of Calvary, click here.
To see the music to On the Sun-Bright Road of Calvary, click here.

The gospel song On the Sun-Bright Road of Calvary was written by Austin Taylor (1881-1973), a Kentucky-bornAustin Taylor and Texas-bred song writer, associated with churches of Christ.  There is little published biographical information about Taylor’s life, but anecdotally several stories and moments remain.  Taylor was said to have possessed a very clear, loud singing voice, even into his later years.  He led the singing at many meetings for famous preachers in his day.  His legacy lives on in The Texas Normal Singing School (also known as The Singing School at Abilene Christian University).  In 1946 preacher Edgar Furr and Brother Taylor began to discuss the need for trained songleaders in the church. As often happens when men go off to war, the quality of singing in church houses diminished during World War II.  They established an annual two-week singing school at Sabinal, Texas.  Many, many boys and young men were trained in music theory, harmony, shape note sight reading, and songleading at that campus.  Eventually the buildings at Sabinal fell into disrepair and it was beyond the capabilities of a summer singing school to build anew. Since 1988, The Singing School has met each summer on the campus of ACU.  The program now caters to adults and presents a full curriculum of church music-related subjects.  Brothers Taylor and Furr would be happy to know that the staff is currently preparing for the 66th year of training men to lead singing (in fact, this blog was born out of a class that I teach at The Singing School on the history of our hymnals in churches of Christ).

What are roads for?  Travel.  Especially in biblical imagery, it’s travel by foot, it’s a walk.  The great word pictures of “walk” that Paul, Peter, and John (oh, especially John!) use in the New Testament gives great hope to the Christian reader who claims the text as his own.  As Gerald Paden taught in his lectures on I John, “It’s where you walk, not how you walk.”  Meaning in no way to ease the emphasis on holy living that the Scriptures teach, Gerald taught us that Christ forgives!  That “walking in the light” is not sinless perfection (for even Christians sin, cf. I John 2:1), but it is the blood-bought Christian’s march, marathon, sprint, crawl, and walk ever TOWARDS God that is an evidence of saving faith which God sees and through which He forgives.

In this song, the “sun-bright road” seems to be the walk of a Christian’s life.  In verse one, it’s the road upon which sings the “ransomed throng” “praises to the King.”  Why are they so confident to march this road, singing aloud? Because they were ransomed by the precious blood of Christ, a lamb without blemish or spot (cf. I Peter 1:18f).

In verse two it’s not only a road TOWARDS God, but a road away from “sin’s dark night.”  Isn’t that the essence of repentance? Away from sin, towards God.  No longer led by the desires of weak flesh, we together are led by truth.

Verse three invokes the picture of Hebrews 12:2, “fix your eyes on Jesus.”  Who knows how long this “sun-bright road” is?  What obstacles stand before us?  Keep your eyes on the prize, what lies beyond the finish line.

Characteristically, like many gospel songs, the last verse is evangelistic in thrust.  In it we see an invitation to the “sinner,” “lift your feet from the downward way.”  As children somehow we learn that heaven is “up” and hell is “down.” And you don’t want to go “down there, do you?,” asks the first line of the verse?  Yet the burden you carry continues to drag you down.  Instead, take Jesus up on his offer of rest for a weary soul (Matthew 11:25ff).

Musically, there’s nothing remarkable about this song.  I do notice that the bass part is written more like an “old hand” bass singer would sing it, rather than the way most are written.  For example, the last three bass notes in measure 4 (mi-re-do), the mi in the 4th measure of the chorus, the first two notes of the last measure, etc., could have been written as do-do-do, do, and so-so.  Obviously there are hundreds of moments in the hymnal where we notice that we don’t sing the notes exactly as written – because our own personal arrangement sounds more “fitting” to our ears or our surrounding culture.  Taylor seems to have incorporated that “bass culture” into his song to begin with.

This is probably a good example of comfortably singable ranges in church music. No single part is strained in what they are asked to sing.  Only the sopranos’ F’s in the second measure of the chorus might give certain unexercised voices a moment’s pause.

So, why is this a “gospel song” and not a “southern gospel song” (also known as “quartet songs” or “convention songs”) or a “hymn”?  It’s true, the definitions are a bit arbitrary, but maybe these observations will help.  Also, keep in mind that it’s not just one or two of these rules that causes a song to go into one category or another. They’ve got to hit a critical mass of attributes before they’re classified one way or another.  Especially in the “in-between years,” songs can easily be hybrids of any given genres.

  • Gospel songs: written between 1830-1930, simple rhythm, a lyrical hook that’s repeated in each verse, Elizabethan English, all parts sing together (with notable exceptions), war themes, at least one evangelistic verse, simple harmonies (I-V-I-IV-V-I), more open harmonies with sometimes an octave between neighboring parts.  Gospel songs are probably the easiest songs in any church’s repertory, due to their folksy nature.  Their major strength is that they can be sung by anyone.
  • Signs of a “classic” southern gospel songs:  Accidentals (especially lots of Fi’s), syncopated rhythm, and upbeat tempo, tighter harmony (made possible by the many accidentals), melody switching from part to part, call-and-response or echo lyrics, usually written between 1935-1965.
  • “Modern” southern gospel songs are more flashy (?), and definitely more syrupy in harmony (think Bill and Gloria Gaithers).

What style of song makes your heart sing? Why?

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8 Comments

Posted by on September 29, 2011 in Biographical Sketch, Song Reviews

 

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8 responses to “The Sun-Bright Road of Calvary

  1. Aaron

    September 29, 2011 at 1:36 pm

    I like the bass part with all the “mi” notes. Does that make me an old hand? 🙂

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    • hymnalcollector

      September 29, 2011 at 1:42 pm

      Aaron, you’re an old hand singer with a new, exciting mind in church music. You’ve got so much talent and ability in music. I’m glad you’re using it to honor God and build up His church.

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  2. Tim B

    September 29, 2011 at 3:15 pm

    I like the stately classical anthems in the manner of Rise Up O Child of God and I Sing the Mighty Power of God, and the contemporary traditional (is that an oxymoron?) work of Glenda Schales, Charli (C.E) Couchman, Craig Roberts, Richard Morrison, Matt Bassford, et al.

    The Southern Gospel songs are fun and I lead them on occasion (Salvation Has Been Brought Down, He is My Everything, and a few others), but the songs that have more meaning to me at this stage. I visit a small country church a couple of Wednesday nights a month and they really love the southern gospel songs especially.

    The well-written contemporary stuff is neat, like “In Christ Alone”, “Faithful Love”, “Ancient Words”, “We Will Glorify”, etc. I don’t usually care for echoing parts unless it’s really tasteful.

    The other day, I picked up a few of the Acapella Praise & Worship (Lancaster) CDs just to learn a few new songs, and my impression from those is that there are a lot of good words and catchy tunes sung, but it seems like most of those kinds of contemporary songs had shallower lyrics. Nothing in the words jumped out as unscriptural, it just seems like the lyrics aren’t as rich. (side note, I didn’t care for the clapping on those CDs, but that’s neither here nor there).

    The contemporary folk stuff from the 30s-50s just never really appealed to me, but I am only 23, so that’s probably normal.

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  3. Tim B

    September 29, 2011 at 3:48 pm

    I can’t edit my post, but in the first paragraph I didn’t finish a statement:

    *the songs that have more meaning to me at this stage are well-written contemporary songs.

    I like the direction the Hymns for Worship and Sumphonia books are going. When the Hymns for Worship folks pirate the “campier” contemporary songs, they rearrange them and delete unnecessary moving parts to make them more singable.

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  4. Gary L. Smith

    November 7, 2011 at 8:08 pm

    I attended The Texas Normal Singing School in Sabinal, TX, when I was 11, 12 and 14 years of age, back in 1961, 1962, and 1964. I guess Austin Taylor was about 80 years old my first year and 83 my last year. I remember him well. He was a hero of mine. He would tell wonderful stories of leading the singing for huge crowds, for some of the most famous preachers of the “Restoration Movement” around the turn of the turn of the last century (1900). He also told of other song writers such as the gifted Fanny Crosby, who has blessed us all with her wonderful lyrics.

    Even in his 80s, Austin Taylor had a deep, deep, deep and strong voice that just filled the building and seemed to make the windows vibrate, and it was un-amplified! His leading of one song in particular, is burned into my memory and I can hear him still, starting deep and clear: “Standing in the market places all the season through, idly saying: “Lord is there no work that I can do?” O, how many loiter while the Master calls anew: reapers, reapers, who will work today…?

    I really loved the brother! Gary L. Smith

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    • hymnalcollector

      March 10, 2012 at 10:15 am

      Gary,
      Thanks for the memories about Brother Taylor. From everything I’ve heard he was a man of great Christian character, love, and full of a desire to praise his Lord in song. That sounds like a pretty noble epitaph to me.

      The Sabinal Singing School has since moved to the campus of Abilene Christian University, but is still in the hands of the Furr family. Joe Furr, son of original director Edgar Furr, leads a faculty of 20+ instructors in a very comprehensive program that tries to address all aspects of church music. Check our http://www.singingschool.org for more information.

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  5. Wayne Wise

    March 21, 2012 at 12:07 am

    I attended the Sabinal School in the early 70’s and kept going through the early 80’s. Austin Taylor passed in January of 1973 so I was able to attend his classes when he was into his 90’s or so. Yes, he still led singing and still had a voice and never used a pitch pipe. He rode the bus every day to Sabinal from Uvalde (22 miles) and stayed through noon or so before he would “call it a day” and return home. He was so committed to the cause of Song leader development, as was Brother Edgar Furr. These men understood that as goes the Song Leader so goes the singing in a congregation.

    As I grew older I came to be a very good friend of Edgar Furr and visited with him many times, either during the school or just to drop by the campus where he lived later in life. I also had the pleasure of helping in his infamous kitchen detail. Few things if any left a greater impact upon me than those memories from Sabinal. My son is named Austin Taylor Wise. No offense to Bro Furr, but I couldn’t pull myself to the name Edgar.

    I have made copies on occasion of several of Taylor’s songs for our informal singings. One of my favorites is “His Love Is Over Under and Around Me”. He also authored some male quartet arrangements which are always fun to sing through.

    Thanks for the site and the blog.

    Wayne Wise

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    • Tim Berman

      April 26, 2012 at 1:08 am

      Wayne, do you also attend the Wilburton School? Seems like I’ve met a Wayne Wise with a son named Austin there.

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