There’s an album, now 20 years old, that keeps popping into my conversations. It came up most recently in a planning meeting for the Emmaus Project, a long-term planning conference. Barbara Molengraaf and I had been invited to lead music and we were whittling down the list of possible songs and hymns with the design team. Derek Macleod mentioned the hymn Who Would True Valour See and wondered if it could be done in the style of Maddy Prior.
The album Derek was mentioning is called Sing Lustily and With Good Courage. It was released in the early 90s and its yeast has been quietly leavening the lump of flour ever since. Some of its influence is, I think, to be heard in the work of Kevin Twitt and the Reformed University, with its rootsy retoolings of strophic hymns. As I mentioned in a previous column, other song leaders are actively engaged in re-thinking and stripping down the lush harmonizations of 20th-century hymn accompaniment.
In some ways, Sing Lustily is far from either revolutionary or contemporary. The title comes from John Wesley’s “Instructions for Singing” in his Select Hymns, 1761. The language is what some people call “traditional,” that is, close to what was originally sung, although with far fewer verses than the authors intended. The hymns are not presented as congregational fare. Maddy Prior, backed by an instrumental ensemble, sings all the selections in a bright, clear voice with folk inflections and slight syncopations.
Part of its power comes from the fact that the accompaniment, played by The Carnival Band on the CD, is an assortment of instruments in the style of the West Gallery bands that accompanied congregational hymns in England before organs became popular in the 18th century: fiddle, recorder, brass, lute, bassoon, side drums.
But its main power comes from its unabashed rhythm and its dedication to melody. Hymns such as Lo, He Comes with Clouds Descending and How Firm a Foundation have a bright brisk tempo that, while retaining their historic harmony, have a drive that highlights the melody rather than the complexity and richness of the harmony. It features an instrumental selection in which tunes we think of as All Things Bright and Beautiful and Let Us with a Gladsome Mind are re-clothed in their folklore garb, and a rendition of How Firm a Foundation that demonstrates the roots of Appalachian and sacred harp singing.
John Bell says somewhere that one of the keys to renewing congregational song is to accompany hymns the way they would have originally been presented. Sing Lustily is one of those treasures that can help us do just that. The album is on the Saydisc label from the UK (CD-SDL 383).