One of the tropes in musical theatre is the ‘my way’ trope: somewhere in the first act (usually toward the end of the act), a major character sings their song of defiance – the song that tells the audience they’re going to go against the grain, take the journey, follow their quest, follow their love. They’re often the first showstopper song, too, the memorable ones that keep us humming. I’m thinking about songs like “Defying Gravity” (Wicked); “Don’t Rain on My Parade” (Funny Girl); “I Am What I Am” (Le Cage aux Folles); “The Impossible Dream” (Man of LaMancha); “Epiphany” (Sweeney Todd); “Rose’s Turn” (Gypsy) because sometimes defiance kicks in late; even “My Shot” (Hamilton), because sometimes defiance kicks in early.
I could go on and on, but you get the point. At some point on a journey, you have to not just see what the path ahead is, you have to declare it and hush the naysayers in a song of defiance. This hymn, with words from John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress, written in 1683, is the song of defiance, old school. Don’t hold me back – I’m doin’ this.
Who would true valor see, let them come hither;
one here will constant be, come wind, come weather;
there’s no discouragement shall make me once relent
my first avowed intent to be a pilgrim.
Whoso beset me ‘round with dismal stories,
do but themselves confound; my strength the more is.
No lion can me fright, I’ll with a giant fight,
but I shall have a right to be a pilgrim.
No word of foe or friend can daunt my spirit;
I know I at the end will life inherit.
Then fancies fly away; I’ll not fear what they say;
I’ll labor night and day to be a pilgrim.
This isn’t my favorite of the English melodies Ralph Vaughan Williams has set – but it’s pretty and a bit aspirational nonetheless, and it works well.
I’m glad we have this hymn; if others we’ve encountered have been fight songs to get us riled up, this is the moment when we open the door and go to take up the fight. It seems appropriate to sing this a few days before the Women’s March (I’ll be in NYC)… I’m ready, I’m geared up, and now, don’t tell me not to go, because it is “my first avowed intent” to do this thing I’m called to do. The time is now, don’t tell me not to, nobody is ever gonna bring me down, I’m not throwin’ away my shot.