Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Hymnology 101

The leader always has this handy when lining a hymn.
Growing up a preacher’s child exposed me to a lot of church traditions throughout my childhood, such as hymn lining. Unfortunately future generations might miss out on it. A few months ago I watched a video about hymn lining becoming a disappearing tradition. Hymn lining is a form of call and response and dates back to slavery times within the black church. Typically a leader sings, or lines, the verses of a hymn in a suggested tune and the congregation repeats in kind. The leader chooses from a variety of meters to line the hymn to, such as common, short and long. Thus lined hymns might be sung in a different tune from how one normally hears it.

Visit many Missionary Baptist Churches on at least the first Sunday during devotion and you might hear one of the deacons line a hymn. Or after a Communion service, the pastor himself might lead parishioners in a hymn before dismissing them from the church. Over the years I’ve heard my share of hymns lined (some good, some bad). You could say I’m practically an expert on hymnology. As a result I have a few things to share on the subject.

1. You can sing vowels to almost any hymn. More than a time or two I’ve been distracted while the leader was lining the hymn and missed the words. So I started singing A-E-I-O-U. It works especially well when stretching out a long note.

2. Ray Charles, or Hey Charles is what many little children seem to think Hymn 454, or “A Charge to Keep I Have,” starts off with (it was not just me). I’m not sure why that’s the case. Maybe our mothers didn’t clean our ears out good enough.

3. Every deacon or pastor seems to have his favorite hymn to line. And they will line it every single time they get the opportunity to do so. My daddy’s favorite is “What a Friend We Have in Jesus.” It’s just not the close of Communion if he doesn’t sing it. Of course there are others in his repertoire, but he does have an affinity for that one.

4. Musicians can actually play while hymns are being sung, but usually don’t out of tradition. When I was little I didn’t think there was music for hymns because no one ever played the piano while the congregation sung. Then one day my cousin played along to a hymn.  many churches back in the day did not have instruments to play along with the hymns. The only instrument was rhythmic clapping and foot stomping.

5. Singing might not be your forte but you will join in after hearing “Come Ye that Love the Lord.” Back in the day I used to not sing along during hymn lining. There was no real reason other than I was probably hellish. Then I listened to these words, “Let those refuse to sing who never knew our God; but children of the heavenly King may speak their joys abroad.” Who can just stay silent after hearing that?

6. Most people (leaders and parishioners alike) probably don’t know which meter they’re singing. Common and short meter are the ones most frequently used. There is a distinctive difference between the two, but don’t ask me which is which.

7. If the leader can’t really sing he might ask another church member to provide a suitable tune for the hymn lining. Usually they get one of the old, old, old deacons or mothers of the church to help out. Then the leader will carry it on from there.

8. Not all verses are sung in the hymn. At least one will be omitted. Blame it on tradition. Also imagine how long it would take to sing every single verse to a hymn. Some of those verses are downright lengthy.

9. Everyone always stands on the last verse sung for prayer. You sing a verse, another verse, and then BOOM you stand and sing another verse before sitting back down. Nobody really knows why (and by nobody I mean me). One day I shall remember to ask my father.

10. They hymn will turn into a hum or moan after the last verse. It’s kind of a nice transition into a prayer. Hymns and prayers just seem to compliment one another nicely. A good hymn just sets the mood perfectly for speaking to God.

What do you know about hymnology? How are your hymn lining skills?

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