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Tag Archives: Note-worthy Songs

The Sun-Bright Road of Calvary


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

 

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When Storms Around Are Sweeping


To see the sheet music, click here.
To hear the song, click here.

Yes, another song arranged for male quartet singing.  This song has several noteworthy moments for our consideration.  My sight reading teacher, Clint Davis, shared this song with me one day as we were sitting on his living room couch talking about the ministry of teaching others to sing.

Composer: Johanna Kinkel
When Storms Around Are Sweeping is sung to an old German tune, composed by Johanna Kinkel.  Kinkel was well-trained in many areas of music, having received private lessons from Franz Ries, Beethoven’s violin instructor.  She met great success early in her professional career, but her personal life led to much turmoil and grief.  She married an abusive man and left him after six months of marriage, leading to years of divorce proceedings, and debilitating depression. Felix Mendelssohn, a famous composer in his own right, encouraged her to continue her music, which she did with much continued success.  After the divorce was settled, she became director of the Gesangverein (“Choral Society”) of her home, Bonn, Germany (one of the first female choir directors in Germany).  She remarried, this time to a Protestant theologian, Gottfried Kinkel.  As revolution swept Germany in 1848, the musical and literary circles of high society in which the Kinkels circulated collapsed.  Gottfried was elected to represent Bonn in the newly-formed National Assembly.  However, as often happens to revolutionaries, he was arrested and sentenced to death. Later he escaped from prison and the Kinkels fled to London where they became pillars of the local German community.  Johanna continued to work in music, conducting, teaching, and writing two books on music education.  Even after all of their trials, Gottfried proved to be a poor husband; history questions his faithfulness to Johanna and their four children.  In 1858 Johanna’s lifeless body was discovered in the garden, below the window of her third-story bedroom.  While it could not be established, suicide was suspected.  The words Freiheit, Liebe und Dichtung (“Freedom, Love, and Poetry”) were inscribed on her tombstone.

Composition and Arrangement
Click here to see a great video of a German chorus singing the original lyrics.
The tune (“Kinkel”) is associated with the German song “Ritters Abschied” (Knight’s Departure).  Abschied has become a traditional “going-to-war” song, the words of a knight leaving his beloved for the Kaiser’s battlefield. “Farewell, farewell my own true love,” ends each line.  Accordingly, this song has several points for musical dynamics to come into play, each phrase being sung more softly or loudly than those on either side. Wistful and longing would be good terms to describe the feel of this song.

Unusual, though not unseen, is the change from 4/4 in the verses to 3/4 in the chorus.

R.J. Taylor’s hymnal Songs for Worship and Praise (2010) names the tune “Sweeping Storms,” noting that these are the words with which the tune is regularly sung. Taylor’s hymnal (and others) does not have the male quartet arrangement here, but a SATB arrangement.  Some of the chords are different, but not to the point that it would be unrecognizable or musically significant.  This TTBB arrangement was taken from Elmer Jorgenson’s Great Songs of the Church II.

Genre of Music
Stylistically, this is not a gospel song, nor is it quite a(n) hymn.  In a stretch, it could be a highly developed gospel song (harmonies are a bit more complex than your typical I-IV-V-I [do, fa, so, do] gospel song) or a late hymn, somehow blurring the lines between the two types of song.  Lyrics that are addressed to God are also more typically associated with hymns than gospel songs.

Lyrics: Anonymous
There is some slight possibility that Kinkel – who, after all, lived in England – wrote the English lyrics “When storms around are sweeping…,” but it’s considered an outside possibility at best. Most scholars do not even think that she wrote the German lyrics, but that she wrote the tune to match the folk poem.

The English lyrics are divided into three stanzas, joined by a common refrain. So joined are they that the sentences which comprise the verses each find their completion in the chorus.

The meter of the poetic lyrics is 7.7.7.7 with a refrain of 8.8, but of the available hymn tunes, none truly fit these words like “Kinkel.”

The first verse seems to be that of a watchman – whether on a ship or at sea is unclear – during a “dark and stormy night.” I suppose this is not the first dank, tiresome night for this man on guard, after all the storms are plural.  Not only is he awake in the darkest night, but he alone is on duty.  Finding himself surrounded by the descending fires of evil and tempters’ siren call, he appeals to El ‘Elyon.  El ‘Elyon is the Hebrew term translated into English as “God Most High,” literally the Chief (or supreme) Power.  The God we serve is not just strong, He’s not just a mighty one, He is the Mighty One.  This is a humble song that recognizes our lack of strength to withstand the storms of life, but at the same time recognizes the unfathomable might of God.
“Save me, Mighty God, from the temptations of life!”

Does verse two echo the moments of Matthew 14 and Peter’s stroll out onto the stormy sea? The lyricist imagines that he – like the apostle – actually begins to step out on faith, but the out of control “raging motion” of the sea disturbs his faith and it begins to shrink back, causing him to sink into the water.  Again, the only one who can help is The Mighty One.  This is all too similar to Matthew 14:30f, “…when he saw the wind, he was afraid, and beginning to sink he cried out, ‘Lord, save me.’ Jesus immediately reached out his hand and took hold of him, saying to him, ‘O you of little faith, why did you doubt?’”
“Save me, Mighty God, from the weakness of my faith!”

The third and final verse visualizes yet another scenario, a man ensnared by the crushing power of sin.  Like the night of the first verse, the darkness is all-pervasive.  By highlighting the mortality of life in the last couplet, the singer appeals to the All-Mighty to remember him in death, much like the thief on the cross.
“Save me, Mighty God, from the power of sin!”

Throughout the Bible the faithful have implored God, “Remember me!”  Samson (Judges 16:28), Hannah (I Samuel 1:11), Nehemiah (Nehemiah 13:14), David (Psalm 25:7) and others took their prayers before God saying, “Remember me, O Mighty One.”

 
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Posted by on July 19, 2011 in Uncategorized

 

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Rearranged Songs / Nearer My God to Thee


To see the music under discussion, click here.

To hear the music under discussion, click here.

As Aaron noted in his comments on the song Crossing the Bar, he is familiar with the song, but not that arrangement.  What does it mean to “re-arrange” a song?

Typically, when a song is written it has a melody (that is, a tune) and a harmonic structure.  That doesn’t necessarily mean it has soprano, alto, tenor, and bass parts, though.  If I asked you to sing your favorite song, you’d probably burst into song – that recognizable tune is the melody (in most church music, the melody is in the soprano part).  Without getting into discussing the study of harmony, let’s just say that harmony is when two or more complementary notes are sounded at the same time, resulting in the “atmosphere” of the song.  To put it in an artistic metaphor: If one drop of rain can refract a tiny ray of sun (that would be melody), ten thousand rain drops can use the same sunlight to make a rainbow (harmony).  So, when an author determines the harmonic structure for his song (not just the tune, but how the whole song should sound, its mood), he’s working on secondary details, on beautification of a solid foundation.

Rearranging, then, can be as simple as a second musician keeping the same melody, but changing the harmony.  There’s an old bit of folk wisdom that says all you need to sing a country [and western] song is “three chords and an old guitar.”  It’s very true that most popular songs can be reduced to 2-4 chords, even if they were originally very complex.  The opposite is also true, though: simple songs can be made more complex, just by adjusting the harmonies that accompany the melody.  (The reason the guitar is the go-to instrument for the lone vocalist – myself included – is that its six strings can easily provide a full harmonic background at a time, without the need for another performer).

Our case in point will be Nearer My God to Thee, a time-tested hymn of high quality.  We’re all familiar with the words (Sarah Flower Adams, 1841), and you probably have a melody in mind, too (mi, re, do, do, la, la, so, do, mi, re…).  The music in this post is based on the familiar melody written by Lowell Mason.  However, notice the following:

  • This song has been rearranged by J.B. Herbert (more on his prolific work later) as a male quartet.  Hence, the parts are not soprano, alto, tenor, bass, but are first and second tenor, first and second bass (all men’s parts).
  • The time signature has been changed from the traditional 4/4 to 6/4, turning this into a waltzy, song with a romantic feel.
  • Notice the echo words in the last line of the song, very different from what we’re used to.
  • The first portion is sung solo by the first tenor part.
  • A keen ear for music is needed to sing this unusual arrangement.  In fact, it’s so unusual, that you might not like it on your first listen.  It took me a little bit before I warmed up to it.
  • All in all, this is the same song, but a different arrangement.

(For your trivial information, earlier than the melody with which we’re familiar, the Nearer text was set to entirely different music.  You may have heard that Nearer was played by the ship’s band as the RMS Titanic sank to the Atlantic seafloor.  It was, but to a different tune [probably called Propior Deo].  We’ll look at completely other tunes in a later post.)

Once I was working on songleading with one of the young men at church.  For his song, he chose Listen to Our Hearts – by far one of most difficult songs in the book (the book being Songs of Faith and Praise).  Now, when sung around a campfire or in a devotional setting, this song comes as naturally as any, but when following the music as written, it becomes difficult.  There are moving parts, peculiar rhythms, an unusual harmonic structure, and a few other curve balls for the novice songleader.  After several moments of frustration, I heard, “I don’t like singing it this way, I like the way we sing it at camp! Why can’t we just do that?”  (I mean no discouragement to the young man, after all – he’d been working on a hard song!)  Even when they’re not written down (like most “camp versions”), we pass down our own home-made arrangements of favorite songs.

If you sit next to me in church while we sing How Great Thou Art, you’ll notice that few of the tenor notes sung don’t match the ones in the book; even more so when we sing This World is Not My Home.  This is fine and well-acceptable (it adds spice and color to our singing together, taking away the temptation to become stale), yet sometimes we meet people who have learned (perhaps “from birth”) to sing the same song with their own “twang” to it.  If there are just a few extra notes here and there, it’s probably safe to say it’s the same arrangement as you’re used to singing; it’s just “embellished.” If there are considerable personal touches to the way a song is sung, it’s probably fair to loosely consider that a “personal arrangement.”  Finally, if a person goes so far as to write down his own way of singing, then they can rightly claim to have rearranged the song.  Such full-scale rearranging can include changing the melody (yet it still must be recognizable), harmony, and rhythm of the song.  The real difficulty arises when your personal arrangement and my personal arrangement don’t mix.  At that point, who “wins”?  If you’re in a congregational setting, the songleader should be allowed artistic control – after all, he’s the leader off of whom everyone else is keying.  When it’s your opportunity to suggest a song be sung in a certain way, though, hopefully your fellow singers can be accommodating.  Keep this peace-loving bit of wisdom in mind, though:  We should not be in the habit of delegitimizing someone else’s song.  Just because “they” sing it differently than I know, than what I grew up with, than what I like, than what’s in the book – that doesn’t make it wrong or a matter of fellowship/participation.  (Now, if it’s honestly a missed note and they’re trying to sing what’s in the book like everyone else, there’s room for gentle corrective instruction, yes!).

Encourage one another to sing, share your songs with one another, share your arrangements of old faithful songs – revive within your fellow singer a passion to worship in song!  Rearranging songs is a great hobby of mine, parts of which I’m sharing through this blog.

 
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Posted by on April 18, 2011 in Uncategorized

 

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Crossing the Bar


Click for the sheet music to Crossing the Bar

Click here to hear Crossing the Bar (music by Samuel Beazley).

Sunset and evening star
And one clear call for me!
And may there be no moaning of the bar,
When I put out to sea,

But such a tide as moving seems asleep,
Too full for sound and foam,
When that which drew from out the boundless deep
Turns again home.

Twilight and evening bell,
And after that the dark!
And may there be no sadness of farewell,
When I embark;

For though from out our bourne of Time and Place
The flood may bear me far,
I hope to see my Pilot face to face
When I have crossed the bar.

The poet Tennyson felt that the twilight of his life was at hand.  Looking over a harbor (some say a sandbar in the Thames River), he set the scene to poetry, describing a longing for serenity in death.

I first heard Crossing the Bar from a dear mentor in ministry and music, Mike Reeves.  At the time, I was Mike’s intern at the Dalton Gardens, Idaho church of Christ.  I already enjoyed singing, but Mike tapped into something and from those days till now I live James 5:13 (“Is anyone happy? Let them sing songs of praise.”).  You couldn’t go an hour without hearing Mike’s tenor voice lift up a song to God.  Some of Mike’s favorite songs (and he likes all kinds) had fallen out of popularity with the general church going public and, as such, were a completely unknown genera to me: the male quartet song.

If you look in Great Songs of the Church II (and many other older books), you’ll find several songs for “special events,” or with the notation “for male quartet.”  Some people might understand better if these songs were described as TTBB (tenor, tenor, bass, bass).  These songs typically have tight, colorful harmonies, the melody is usually in the second tenor (what would look like alto), and the second bass part is mercifully low.  To sing these songs as written is to sing a man’s song, designed for men’s voices.  One should note that the notes in the upper staff (in the old hymnbooks, written with an obscure C clef on the 3rd space) are not written for the female register.  Of course, a song can be transposed and rearranged to be sung by a full chorus (SATB), but the treble (higher) parts of male quartet songs are written an octave lower than in a song for Soprano and Alto singers.  This doesn’t actually cause a male singer to sing lower, it simply reflects where his voice is already singing.  So, with the treble notes being so close to the bass notes, the harmonies are naturally tighter and more aesthetically pleasing to the ear.  I reflected this in the typesetting of Crossing the Bar by using what’s called an “octave clef.”  One can use any clef (G, F, C) and add the numeral 8 to the top or bottom of that clef symbol.  This indicates that the music is to be sung/played either an octave higher (top) or lower (bottom) than one would typically expect with that clef.  For example, the first note in the first tenor part is a C.  Typically, one with think of this as C-above-middle-C, but since the clef we used indicates everything should be lowered by an octave, this is not C-above-middle-C, but it is – in fact – middle C.

I haven’t reflected on the lyrics of Crossing the Bar in this post.  I’ll probably do that later.  For now, though, what do you think of the poem and music to which it was married?

Look for a few more male quartet songs to follow.  You’ll probably never hear them sung, but you’ll be enriched by exposure to them – I know I have been.  I’m thankful for people like Mike who make our lives more full by showing us that music is inside of us, it’s something to be made, not just listened to as others perform it.

 
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Posted by on March 23, 2011 in Uncategorized

 

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Jesus’ Name My Rosary


Disclaimer:  I’m not trying to be “Anti-Catholic” in this post, nor am I against promoting prayers.  There is some theological reflection in this post, but it’s also full of religo-sociological thoughts that reflect the lyricists, editors, and the audience for which they labored.  If this post causes someone to question his beliefs, however, I don’t consider that a bad thing.  If we never question our beliefs, we’ll never refine them and grow into an understanding of them.  Christians never need to fear the truth.

To see this song, click here.
To hear this song, click here.

My latest hymnal purchase was Choice Gospel Hymns published in 1923 by the Gospel Advocate Company of Nashville, Tennessee.  Churches of Christ have supported Gospel Advocate as a publishing house since 1855.  David Lipscomb himself was the editor-in-chief of the flagship publication (“Gospel Advocate”) for nearly five decades.  The Gospel Advocate has represented a conservative viewpoint throughout its existence.  Anyone who has studied churches of Christ or the American Restoration Movement knows that two distinctives are the rejection of overtly manmade systems of belief and practice and, accordingly, the rejection of instruments of music in worship.  It’s because of those distinctives that I find this particular song to be an oddity: “Jesus’ Name My Rosary.”

If you look at the musical score, you can’t help but notice the first two measures are all piano music.  While many hymnal editors took advantage of previous songbooks and would simply copy already-typeset pages for inclusion into their new books, that’s not the case here.  The type is consistent with the rest of the book and the copyright information tells us that this song was exclusive to this book, that this was its first appearance.  When that’s the case, one seldom finds music arranged for piano playing in a hymnal that is designed with a cappella singing in mind.

The text was adapted (it doesn’t say by whom, though. One of the editors?) from a poem by Episcopalian clergyman William Augustus Muhlenberg (1796-1877).  These Pennsylvania Muhlenbergs are descended from Henry Muhlenberg (d. 1787), a Lutheran missionary to America (it’s worth it to read their family story – fine people).  William was the author of a book of religious poetry and wrote the following lyrics:

Jesus’ name shall every be
For my heart its Rosary.
I will tell it o’re and o’re,
Always dearer than before.

Ave Mary may not be
For my heart its Rosary;
Jesus, Savior, All in all –
Other name why should I call?

Morning hymns and evening lays,
Noontide prayer and midnight praise,
Heart and voice, and tune and time,
Jesus’ name they all shall chime.

Ever new and fresh the strain;
Of all themes, the sweet refrain:
Time will bring what it may along,
Jesus still th’ unchanging song.

Redolent with healing balm,
Pleasure’s charm and trouble’s calm;
All of Heaven my hope and claim,
Grace on grace in Jesus’ name.

In my soul each deepest chord
Ring it out, Our Savior Lord;
Jesus, the eternal hymn
Forth from saint and seraphim.

Breathe it, then, my every breath;
Linger on my last in death;
Jesus – Rest in paradise;
Jesus – Glory in the skies.

The song in Choice Gospel Hymns leaves out any adaptation of the first two lines verse two, which – to me – made the whole thing make sense.  “Rosary” is a Roman Catholic prayer device that is rooted in worship (“veneration”) of Mary.  So inextricably is the rosary tied to Mary-worship, that to complete a rosary cycle one must pray 14 “ave Marias” (a worship prayer to Mary, commonly known in English as “Hail Mary”) and a “Salve Regina” (hail the Queen of heaven).  Obviously biblical passages like Revelation 22:8f and Matthew 4:10 forbid the worship (“hailing”) of anyone but God, so how is the term “rosary” used here?

The lyrics read, “Ave Mary may not be For my heart its Rosary; Jesus, Savior, All in all – Other name why should I call?”  In this poem we are taught that praising Mary would be calling into question the all-sufficiency of Jesus as our mediator into the throne room of God (the Bible says, “and there is one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus,” I Timothy 2:5).  Instead of using Catholic rosary beads, this song suggests we use the name of Jesus to word our prayers.  This song encourages us to make the theme of our prayers be Jesus.

Too often our prayers are focused on me, myself, and I.  I do wonder what the results would be if we recorded our prayers and counted the times we used first person references vs. how many times we spoke about Jesus.  Just like the song says to exalt Mary is wrong, remember that it’s equally wrong to exalt ourselves in our prayers.  Prayer time is not the same thing as sitting on Santa’s lap and saying, “Yes, I’ve been good, Old Man, and I want X, Y, Z.”  Prayer is quality time spent with our Heavenly Father, prayer is adoration and worship time, prayer is about thanksgiving.  Look to the psalms and see how many of them are addressed to God.  Many of the psalms do nothing more than (should we say, “nothing less than”?) enumerate the great qualities of God.  When was the last time I prayed like that?  You? Just like you and I compliment those we love, we should compliment God, we should sing His praises, we should tell ourselves, tell others, and tell Him just what a majestically awesome God He truly is.

So, are you going to hear Jesus’ Name My Rosary next Sunday?  Probably not (if you do though, I’d love to hear about it!).  Musically I think this type of song has run its course.  I’m not sure how many people ever heard this song, to be honest with you: songs with piano music don’t seem to be high on an a cappella church’s list of favorites.  But at least listen to the music once, reflect on the lyrics – allow the main message of the song to realign your prayer life to be more Jesus-focused.

What else about this song hits you?  If you see any other interesting moments in this piece, be sure to comment below.

 
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Posted by on March 10, 2011 in Uncategorized

 

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