The Corner

A Public Religious Display In New York?

May I briefly invade Jay’s territory? With a musical note?

I dislike the cultural vandalism of the secular militants: attacks on crèches at Christmas, on public displays of the Ten Commandments, on “In God We Trust,” etc. God (in whom we trust) help us when they turn their attention to the names of cities: San Antonio, Los Angeles, Sacramento, San Diego, Santa Fe, St. Louis, Corpus Christi, etc.

Especially galling is the ongoing attack on religious music, which is an attack from without — restricting the performance of religious compositions — and an attack from within — rewriting the lyrics to “Amazing Grace,” for instance, to get rid of all that downer “saved a wretch like me” business.

Robert Conquest’s first law of politics is: Everyone is conservative about what he knows best. You know who knows Americans’ taste in music? Buskers — and they are a deeply conservative bunch when it comes to music. The street performers on our cities’ sidewalks and subway platforms know their market: In Greenwich Village, on any Saturday night in the summer, you can hear Bob Dylan’s greatest hits being performed with more care and reverence than Dylan ever managed.

My day usually starts in Grand Central Terminal and, very often, that means it starts with “How Great Thou Art,” which is constantly performed by subway musicians there. It has always struck me: In what is allegedly America’s most godless city, a very citadel of secularism, the song I most often hear performed by the (unfortunately treacly) duo working most days at the exit from the No. 4 train is “How Great Thou Art.” You’d probably get into a fistfight with the ACLU if you tried to hang a sign reading “Merry Christmas” within 500 feet of those guys in December, but they earn their living playing “How Great Thou Art,” over and over. And nobody seems to mind. In fact, they seem to enjoy it.

“How Great Thou Art” isn’t just a Christian hymn: It’s a Bible-thumping, tent-revivalist, old-school, fundamentalist favorite that came into popularity through the Billy Graham crusades of the 1950s. In other words, it’s a song meticulously designed to annoy militant secularists of the New York City–dwelling, subway-riding variety. But they throw money at the guys playing it. In a public building — arguably, America’s most public building: Grand Central. I suspect this means that people without ideological commitments to erasing our Christian heritage are much more tolerant in their private lives than we have become, collectively, in public life. That, and it’s a catchy tune.

“How Great Thou Art” is an enormously popular song, of course. It was one of my mother’s favorites, along with “I Come to the Garden Alone.” She loved to sing but didn’t have much of a head for lyrics, and she often got “How Great Thou Art” confused in part with “Amazing Grace,” singing: “Amazing grace, how great Thou art!” Part of the song’s appeal, I think, is that it is a lot of fun to sing: It’s the sort of thing that can make merely competent singers sound really good. (No sneering at the merely competent; when it comes to singing, mere competence is something to which I aspire.) It’s that three-note climb at the beginning of the refrain: “Then sings my soul ….” It very closely resembles another popular sing-along, “Danny Boy,” which has a very similar three-note climb at the opening of its refrain: “But come ye back ….” (“Danny Boy” is always “Londonderry Air” to me, not because I’m a pedant or a Northern Ireland partisan, but because that’s the way Chet Atkins titled it on the record I had as a kid, and you don’t argue with Chet Atkins. Also, I always thought that if I came from England I might be tempted sometimes to tell people to kiss my “Londonderry Air.”)

It’s a rousing song — the crowds who came out to hear Billy Graham couldn’t get enough of it. It was translated into English by Stuart Wesley Keene Hine, a Methodist missionary who worked from a Russian version of a German translation of the Swedish original. Wikipedia tells us:

As the story goes, when the Billy Graham team went to London in 1954 for the Harringay Crusade, they were given a pamphlet containing Hine’s work. “At first they ignored it, but fortunately not for long,” said [Bud] Boberg. They worked closely with Hine to prepare the song for use in their campaigns. They sang it in the 1955 Toronto campaign, but it didn’t really catch on until they took it to the Madison Square Garden in 1957. According to Cliff Barrows (Dr. Graham’s longtime associate), they sang it one hundred times during that campaign because the people wouldn’t let them stop.”

Elvis recorded a famous version of it, it’s been done in Chinese, and there are two Esperanto versions. And you can even play it in public in New York. Amazing. Great.

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