Archive | February, 2013

Dumb and Dumber, “Come Thou Fount”, and re-writing old songs for the worse

11 Feb

One of the things I get cranky about is when we re-write songs. If it’s a modern song then it’s usually a copyright violation. I hate copyright for lots of reasons, but in this case, I find it more of a moral violation of author rights. If it’s an older song, out of copyright, songsters feel like they have open slather to mess with songs. Usually for the worse.

One song people love to mess with is ‘Come thou fount’. Here’s a link to the wikipedia page which has an excellent run down of various lyrical versions.. Now if changes were made because you were singing in a context were basic english was preferable, e.g. among ESL speakers, I might be more forgiving. But usually changes are made because people think that other people won’t understand. So they dumb the song down.

I’m pro-contextualisation, but dumbing things down is not contextualisation, it’s patronisation. Let’s look at 3 common changes in this song:

1. Praise the mount -> praise the name
The first change takes the reference to the ‘mount’, i.e. the mount of crucifixion, and makes it more general.

Praise the mount, I’m fixed upon it
Mount of thy redeeming love

In the older version, the lyrics are pointing us to the crucifixion as the central focal point. The speaker describes himself as ‘fixed’ upon it, a reference not only to being ‘fixated’ with the cross-event, but also a reference to being ‘fixed’ on the cross itself, I mean ‘hung on the cross’. We are reminded that in the death of Jesus there is a substitutionary element by which we die there with him. Futhermore, the Cross is the place of God’s eternal, unchanging, redeeming love.

Making the change to ‘Name’ eliminates all this. While it is true that the concept of ‘the Name’ has good scriptural resonances, they are unncessarily imported into this context, and are better left for other songs. We lose the play between fount and mount. We lose the geographical/spatial play. We lose the double play on ‘fixed’, and lastly we lose the specific elements of revelation of God’s redeeming love that are associated with the cross for a more ‘generic’ expression of love.

2. “interposed his precious blood”
often replaced with “bought me with his precious blood”

‘Interposed’ is a great word. It’s not overly difficult.
The construction of the word involves placing (positioning) something between two other things (inter + pos-; pos- being a latin root for placing/positioning verbs). Jesus interposed, placed his blood, between us and the judgment of the Father. We didn’t need to rewrite this, people just did sobecause they thought others wouldn’t understand. Hey, how about you just teach your congregation a new word.

3. I saved the best for last.
“Here I raise my Ebenezer,
hither by the grace I’ve come
And I hope, by the good pleasure
Safely to arrive at home”

Often changed to:
Hither to thy love has blessed me
Thou has brought me to this place
And I know thy hand will bring me
Safely home by thy good grace
or some modernised language version of the same.

The opening line is a ref to 1 Sam 7:12.

It’s worth looking this line up and reading the context. Here is a biblical picture of a time in Israel’s life where they raised a memorial, in the form of a stone or cairn, and called it the ‘Stone of Help’. It’s the remembrance of God’s grace in bringing his people ‘thus far’. So to sing these lines is ourselves to engage in an act of remembrance, to remember God’s grace to us and how God has brought us to the place we are.

Sure, it makes no sense if you don’t know this. So a good way to deal with this is to educate, not dumb down. In a congregational setting you can introduce this song, or revert your wording and briefly explain the first couple of times what these words mean. People will understand. Suddenly you’ve got a congregation that know a bit more Old Testament, and are singing this song with more reflection and insight. And if someone new or absent asks, 80% or more of people will remember such an unusual lyric and be able to explain. What a great testimony to have believers explaining to one another the lyrics of this great song and its Biblical reference.

While these re-written lyrics, apparently stemming from a rewrite by E. Margaret Clarkson, aren’t terrible, they’re not really improvements, in my opinion. And they lead to endless re-writes and changes, and suddenly no-one quite knows the song anymore because there is no song, there are only songs, each one ‘improved’ by its latest redactor. But what if we’re not improving songs?

Don’t dumb songs down, smarten people up.