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Tuesday, April 23, 2013

SongStories 7 - New Jerusalem (2005)

OK, if you are keeping track, this is actually the eighth post in this series, but I have two "2" entries, because apparently counting isn't my strong suit. We'll think of them as 2a and 2b.

Songs start in all kinds of different ways. Sometimes you're just minding your own business and an idea pops into your head (for me, "Servant Song" came like this). Sometimes you're working on planning music, and getting frustrated because there doesn't seem to be a good fit for a Sunday, and you think, "Well, I could write something." Or you get that idea after the Sunday passes, and a homily or something in the liturgy strikes you ("Come to Us" came like this.) Sometimes people want you to write a song for them ("Live the Promise" and the entire "Keep Awake" album, among many others) and sometimes a collaborator gives you a melody and won't leave you alone for months, even years, until you write a text ("Covenant Hymn.") Sometimes the idea comes from a book, or even a footnote in a book, like "I Am for You" began from a footnote in the Jerusalem Bible. Sometimes, it comes from a conversation, like our "A Litany of Saints," or, in today's case, "New Jerusalem."

Terry, Gary Daigle and I were driving up to Milwaukee or somewhere in southern Wisconsin a few years ago when we got to talking about the movie Shenandoah, which was probably something Terry brought up, since she's the old movie buff and I haven't seen it. This led to a conversation about the song, and how beautiful the melody is in its various incarnations. I had borrowed the melody of "Star of the County Down" for "Canticle of the Turning" a decade earlier, and that was generally a good match between the new text and the tune. Of course, the tune had already been "baptized" in the hymn melody called KINGSFOLD, but "Canticle" used the melody full-on, including the refrain, and assumes an accompaniment that is folk-like and suited to the tune's Irish roots. Other American, Irish, and British tunes have also been used by composers, like David Haas's use of "Wild Mountain Thyme" and "Mairi's Wedding," copious versions of "The Water Is Wide," known as O WALY WALY in hymn circles, and Liam Lawton's recent revisiting of the bold melody MO GHILE MEAR. This is not even to begin to enumerate the dozens of contributions by the prolific John Bell of folk adaptations, not just from the British Isles, but from around the world. Before him, there was the work of Rev. Willard Jabusch of Chicago, who adapted folk tunes of Spain and Israel (among others) along with a body of original works in the early decades of the reform.

As we spoke about "Shenandoah," it occurred to me that it would be a good candidate for adaptation as well. Though the exact origins of the song are lost in American antiquity, "Shenandoah" seems to be a work song, in call-and-response form. The best guesses imagine it originated with riverboats and barges on interior waterways. Carl Sandburg, an historian and collector of folk songs, said that the original word was "Shanadore," and referred to a tribal chief, but that the name eventually evolved into the name of the river. Others postulate a ribald origin of the words, and who knows? Everybody could be right in one way or another, since the song goes back to a time when music was purely the domain of popular culture and oral tradition.

In its most familiar modern form, though, the words and music of "Shenandoah" evoke a nostalgia for the pristine beauty of river and forest, the (imagined) simpler life of those times, and also the eternal sense of longing and the ache for distant loved ones. Even without the words, the tune itself is evocative, with the "rolling river" in the background, and the sense of being "bound away" from home and family on a journey of indeterminate length and outcome.

It struck me that this sense of longing for home and journey were part of the Christian myth surrounding the "New Jerusalem," and the cluster of emotions that surround the death of a Christian, the hope and the sorrow so interwoven in the paschal mystery, might be well carried by this venerable tune. The book of Revelation, used throughout the Easter season and so often proclaimed at Christian funerals, proclaims a vision of a time when every tear will be wiped away, and a place that is so beautiful that longing for the past will be forgotten. Once it dawned on me that "O Shenandoah" and "Jerusalem" share the same number of syllables and word accents, I set to work adapting Revelation 20-21 to the tune I remembered.

In making "New Jerusalem" a congregational piece, I wanted to keep the "call-and-response" form that is implied by the original text. The responses I chose were, "Come ye down in light and beauty," a reference to the vision of John that the new Jerusalem was a gift from heaven to earth, and then "And death shall be no more in the new Jerusalem." Actually, I think I originally had, "And death shall be no more in God's holy city." Kelly Dobbs-Mickus, then one of the editors at GIA, suggested the change at the end of the line that seems so obvious to me now! Not only does it reinforce the central image of the song, it fits the tune better. It takes a musical village, I guess!

I hope you'll give "New Jerusalem" a listen. We gave it a simple choral setting (SAB) with flute and violin parts (link is to GIA's page for the song on their site) for a "roots music" feel. For me, it expresses some of the complicated truth of the paschal mystery that the book of Revelation articulates in its arcane and symbolic way. We will be singing this at some of the masses the next two weekends at St. Anne's. At the first communion masses, we omit the second reading from Revelation, but at the regular masses the song will work well.

iTunes link:
New Jerusalem - Today


  1. As one who spent so much time in, conducting, or programing music for school bands and choruses, it is difficult for me to get beyond the shadow cast by the proliferation of arrangements of this tune. Many of them of dubious quality. This sentiment was expressed by Garrison Keillor here:

    Of course, when you keep it simple and straightforward it’s hard not to be moved by the beauty of this haunting melody. That’s what your arrangement captures, as does this Chieftains version song by Sissel:

    1. I think you can add "O Waly Waly" and "Londonderry Air" to that list too. Arrangers are always looking for work, and a lot of times they're looking for ways to highlight a particular choir's strengths, or the uniqueness of their own technique. The popularity of these tunes makes them particularly vulnerable to overexposure. As for me, a lot of times all I do as a writer is sort of throw our best work up against the wall of ecclesial response to see what sticks. How good I think it is, or how competently I've treated the music and/or text, barely matters. People use what they want to use. There's a lot of competition out there for peoples' attention in the church music field. All I can say is: I won't be retiring any time in the foreseeable future. :) Thanks for your note, and the links.