STJ#1011, Return Again

There’s a wonderful podcast called Song Exploder, where host Hrishikesh Hirway invites songwriters to talk about the origins and construction of their songs; they ‘explode’ the song apart to share insights about the ideas for the song, and about the various parts as it goes from hummed melody and chords on a piano to fully arranged and produced.

Much like that process, there is a process here at Hymn by Hymn too; I am gonna explode my own process for a few minutes – break it apart and explain how I get from spiritual practice to post. (I should note that it didn’t start this way, but curiosity led to this process after a few short weeks).

It starts with coffee. Or at least the making of… I get the coffeemaker set up, press on, and then sit down nearby with my hymnal. Flip, flip, flip to the right page, and I start to sing. If I’m lucky, I know the hymn, or at least the tune (I’m getting a lot better at recognizing tunes by their name because of this). If I don’t, I do a search through various hymn tune sites…maybe YouTube… and as a last resort, open the keyboard app on my phone to plunk out the melody. And I sing.

I really do sing the song, folks. Sometimes it’s quietly, sometimes it’s begrudgingly, sometimes it’s joyfully, sometimes it’s robustly … but I always sing it. I do that because I know that singing shifts our bodies energetically – it gets something moving in our bodies and our souls. And singing lyrics wakes up the mind, too.

Out of the singing comes some experiences, some questions, some affirmations. It might be a lyric that stops me, or a melodic phrase that captures me, or questions arising about its origins. I think about those questions, as well as my opening line, while I prepare the first sacred cup of the holy brew.

Then I sit down to the computer.

Sometimes I know just where I’m going and I begin writing. Other times, my curiosity leads me to a bit of research, which helps me frame my post for the day. I will often have half a dozen tabs open as I look at the hymn’s usage, origin stories, the composer’s bio, alternate lyrics. Sometimes there’s a poetry page or two, and often some YouTube examples of the song. Sometimes (like yesterday) there’s an email or text conversation with the composer or a member of the hymnal commission to offer further insights.

By the time I’ve done a bit of work, I have a pretty good sense of how to proceed – how to explore my own experience of singing, my own thoughts about the musicology, poetry, theology, spirituality, and liturgy reflected in my experience. I write, then find an image (often from Pixabay but sometimes from other sources), tag it, and publish it. By that point I’ve finished my first cup of coffee and can get on with my day. And a second cup of coffee.

Now I tell you all this because the experience I had singing this round today does not match the subsequent research I did before I sat down, and I stared at this screen for several minutes trying to find a way to explain what happened from first sung notes to first words on the post. And I probably wrote that whole piece above as a way to avoid the inevitable.

As we have Shlomo Carlebach’s round here, it’s a gorgeous invitation to return to ourselves, to remove the masks, to get back to what we know is true about ourselves. Return to the home of your soul… gorgeous. As I sang it I felt a bit of release, comforted by this reminder.

Return again, Return again,
Return to the home of your soul.

Return to who you are,
Return to what you are,
Return to where you are
born and reborn again.

But of course it also made me wonder about Carlebach, and if there are recordings of the piece for those who are unfamiliar. So I googled, and I discovered in listening to him perform the song that the lyric has been changed; the original is “return to the land of your soul.”

Of course that makes sense; Carlebach (known as “The Singing Rabbi”) was writing and performing songs specifically for a Jewish audience, writing songs that speak about the Divine in ways that “make other rabbis uncomfortable.” And given that, “Land” makes sense, with its significance to the Jewish people and their millennia’s-long desire to be home in Israel. The idea that the returning again is to a physical place – the land of your soul – is as important as and is maybe equal to/more resonant than returning to a sense of self.

Now I can see how the original lyrics might offer some resonance with people whose lands were stolen by greedy Europeans, or with people who were taken from their lands by greedy Europeans – I can’t speak for them but I suspect a Latinx or an African American might find some connection to the original lyric. However, as a descendant of greedy Europeans, I have no right and no standing to sing Carlebach’s original “land of your soul” – it seems like an affront.

Now I wouldn’t have had any of these thoughts if I’d not followed my process. And maybe I’d have been happy to continue using this song to focus on personal spiritual growth.

But now – even with the changed lyric that makes it less obviously about physical place – I struggle. I know the hymnal commission contacted Carlebach’s estate to get approval for the lyric change, but it still feels like, well, like we whitewashed the song.

And I don’t know what to do with that. Until this morning, and through the original singing, I loved this piece and have used it.

Now, I’m not so sure.

It’s still beautiful and lush, and I’m glad it’s here. But I’m just not sure about it anymore.

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