STLT#52, In Sweet Fields of Autumn

Huh – it’s autumn and I am singing an autumn hymn? That’s not bound to happen very often.

If only I liked it more.

I actually got a little excited to sing an autumn hymn on this Thanksgiving day. And then I sang it, and while I was unimpressed by the lyrics (I’ll get to that), I found myself connecting to memories because of the tune.

It’s a lullaby – fairly simple to sing, and quite familiar. As I started to sing, I was transported back to my bedroom in our farmhouse on Taborton Mountain – the northernmost mountain of the Taconic range, which help make the Hudson Valley a valley. Mom would come into my room when I had climbed into bed and sing lullabies. There must have been a dozen or more that she sang, in a deep alto voice. At some point in the 1970s she recorded them onto a cassette tape – but it got lost, or broken, or taped over, and so I don’t have those songs anymore. But I do remember many of them, including this soft tune.

The lyrics to this hymn are not the lullaby lyrics – they are instead an unremarkable ode to the turning of the year.

In sweet fields of autumn the gold grain is falling,
the white clouds drift lonely, the wild swan is calling.
Alas for the daisies, the tall fern and grasses,
when wind-sweep and rainfall fill lowlands and passes.

The snows of December shall fill windy hollow;
the bleak rain trails after, the March wind shall follow.
The deer through the valleys leave print of their going;
and diamonds of sleet mark the ridges of snowing.

The stillness of death shall stoop over the water,
the plover sweep low where the pale streamlets falter;
but deep in the earth clod the black seed is living;
when spring sounds her bugles for rousing and giving.

To be honest, I don’t know when I would ever use this hymn in worship. The lullaby tune feels out of place for morning worship, and the lyrics don’t move worship along. They’re like a set piece in a musical – think “A Bushel and a Peck” from Guys and Dolls: Adelaide sings it on stage, as she’s a performer. The song is cute and features this great secondary character (who actually has some great songs and lines elsewhere in the show), but nothing changes because she sang this – only time has progressed. We learn nothing about character, plot, motives.

Similarly, in my musical theatre theory of worship (one of many frames I like to think about worship through), nothing moves forward here. It’s an ‘oh, look, the seasons change and we’re going to remind ourselves of this fact’ piece – there is, for me, no sense that hearts, minds, or spirits are changed or moved or even really affected by this. They’re more likely to be moved by a memory of the tune than inspired by the lyric.

And now, I expect this will be a favorite of folks I adore and admire, and once again I’ve stepped into the breach and an argument will ensue. Hopefully about the hymn, not about Guys and Dolls, which is an incredibly well-crafted musical, even if Brando did kinda screw up “Luck Be a Lady” in the movie version.

Anyway, I digress. Despite my not really liking this one, I’m dwelling in lots of good memories today, and that’s not a terrible consequence of this practice.

Happy Thanksgiving, all.

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