I was raised in a small United Methodist Church near Kingsport, Tennessee, in the community of Morrison City. We had three main song sources. The Sunday morning books we used were the black-bound “Methodist Hymnals” published in 1935. This hymnal was the first effort toward unification between the former “northern” and “southern” branches of the church (having split into geographically oriented separate organizations prior to the Civil War), and had no song titles on the pages. There were theme titles, but to find hymns you had to go the Index of First Lines. It was a big, heavy book, that childish hands had a difficult time holding, and most of the songs were rather formal for us. But we used it on Sunday mornings because we thought that was the appropriate thing to do. It was replaced in the early 1970s in our church when the new “Book of Hymns” of the newly formed United Methodist Church came out. These red hymnals were much more popular, although they were still held in disdain for their formality, but we loved No. 17: “How Great Thou Art.” We hardly ever used it other than Sunday morning.
In our church we held prayer meeting on Wednesday nights and Evening Worship on Sunday nights. This allowed us the possibility to use two other song books. Our primary secondary songbook was the famous brown-clad “Cokesbury Hymnal”. It was hard-bound, but thin and small enough for young people to hold, and older folks to appreciate. Numbers 64, 121, 153, and 95 were my favorites. I had to memorize those numbers because we would get to call out a number on Sunday nights sometimes, and you had to be ready. The songs ranged from “Blessed Assurance” to “Love Lifted Me” and included unique songs like the “Evening Prayer” and “Peace, Be Still.” This songbook was published in the 1930s, and even had one version that was printed in shaped notes (no longer available). It is still being sold by the publishing house. Although dated, the songs have been timeless in southern congregations.
Our third choice was a book that was published by the Stamps-Baxter gospel quartet. “Songs of Inspiration” was published serially. We had “No. 3” for the congregation and “No. 9” for the choir. The choir version was covered in a paper-back cover that had pictures of Jesus, Warner Salman’s “head of Christ” on the front and the picture of Jesus rescuing a little lamb caught in the thicket on the back. The No. 3 version was covered in plain burgandy. These songs were all shaped-notes. Before I was born the church used to hold singing schools, and many of the older people had learned to sing by shaped notes. Well-meaning seminary graduates had taught the church that this type of singing was no longer in vogue, so we only did it in evening services. But these songs rang with a special enthusiasm when sung at Morrison Chapel. “I Can Tell You Now the Time,” “The Jericho Road,” “The Keys to the Kingdom,” “A Beautiful Life,” and many more were in this edition. We loved this book, and its songs kept me going in difficult times in seminary.
When we would have a joint revival with State Line Baptist Church they would bring their Broadman Hymnals over, apparently thinking we didn’t have anything they could sing out of. They had some good songs, but I guarantee some of their songbooks didn’t get back across the valley with them.
We had a little youth choir in the 1970s that used a songbook that had things like “I Wish We’d All Been Ready,” and “Happiness Is To Know the Savior,” and some other little ditties.
Music is changing rapidly in our time. Hymnals are being replaced by digital words on screens. Praise and Worship style, led by guitars, drums, electronic keyboards, and other things, is making huge inroads. Songs that are set at low keys, simple, rhythmic choruses with repetitive phrases, and “updated” versions of classic songs are the new rage.
I don’t mind the new music. It isn’t native to me, so I have to learn it, and I’m a slow learner. But I rejoice when I occasionally run into a song I haven’t heard in years that used to ring the rafters at Morrison Chapel when we would sing “By Letter.” Perhaps I should explain that: Singing by letter is when you “rare back and “let ‘er fly”. Whatever the style, we sure need the enthusiasm.
So, as they sometimes say in church when someone is singing a blessed song: “Sing it, children!”