STJ#1071, On the Dusty Earth Drum

Way way back on December 16, 2016 – back when this practice was still new – I wrote these words:

I wish I could make sense of this one.  No, seriously. I mean, I get that the lyrics are a rain song, and thus appropriate for a section called The World of Nature. I also get that we want to include voices beyond white men, and thus the hymn led me to learn about Joseph Cotter, Jr, who was an African American playwright and poet who died of tuberculosis at age 24.

But seriously – this too, too simple German tune? … MAYBE this tune sounds okay in a round, but certainly not in a song about dry earth and ancient (I assume native American) drums.

Everything just seems wrong about this.

Well, howdy. I didn’t realize until literally a minute ago that – much like his work on How Sweet the Darkness – had written a much better, much more appropriate tune for these lyrics.

On the dusty earth drum beats the falling rain;
now a whispered murmur, now a louder strain.

Slender, silvery drumsticks on an ancient drum
beat the mellow music bidding life to come.

Chords of life awakened, notes of greening spring,
rise and fall triumphant over everything.

Slender, silvery drumsticks beat the long tattoo —
God, the Great Musician, calling life anew.

The tune that Jason wrote (and which the hymnal commission put together as part of their quodlibet), does echo some of the chant styles we think of as coming from native American tribes, but even without that, the minor key and complexity of the canon works a lot better.

And yet.

I’m not sure even now that I would use it, given the weird conflagration of European American composer, African American lyricist, and sacred imagery that belongs to either (or maybe both?) Native American or African traditions. No offense to Jason, of course – his composition does a whole not more to honor the text than the German-washed-in-the-blood-hymn setting we find in STLT. But even now, I feel uncomfortable as a European American myself considering the use of this without a serious and perhaps belabored content warning.

 

One Comment

  1. “Slender, silvery drumsticks on an ancient drum
    beat the mellow music bidding life to come.”

    I think the ancient drum is, as it says, the earth, and the silvery drumsticks are the streaking raindrops beating on the earth. God, or nature, or whoever, is renewing the earth with rain. Nothing to do with Native Americans or Africans. For that matter, why should the idea of drums evoke only Africans and Native Americans? Drums, rattles, and flutes, from what I know of archaeology and anthropology, are the original instruments for humanity, and universal. Why don’t we think of Celtic drums, Japanese drums, Greek drums, or many other drum traditions still current?

    To my ear, the words are quite in a 19th century Euro-American romantic style, not a Native American chant. And I’m not sure a minor key is appropriate – to me, the words are a celebration of life renewed, not at all mournful or even longing.

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