Wednesday, December 27, 2006

Hills of the North Rejoice

The English Hymnal didn't have Charles Edward Oakley's hymn "Hills of the North Rejoice" in it.

Nor does the New English Hymnal have it.

But the New English Hymnal has a kind of fraudulent version that is apt to catch you unawares. There's a hymn in that book that begins "Hills of the North Rejoice" and if you're not on your guard, you'll think you're going to be lucky, when hymn 7 is announced, and that you're going to be treated to those lovely bits about "river and mountain spring", "deep in your coral caves", "lulled be your restless waves", "soon shall your sons be free", and "Shout while ye journey home!".

But look out! Don't let them sell you a counterfeit. The version you'll get if you're in a NEH church won't give you any of that. All those lines have been torn out (and not just those). In fact what you'll get from the NEH is not Oakley's hymn at all, but a kind of low grade pastiche, written by the EDITORS. (According to the book it's based on something by Oakley, and indeed the first line of every verse is plagiarised from Oakley's "Hills of the North", but nothing else remains of that hymn, apart from a very badly distorted version of the last verse).

Let's do a few comparisons:
Verse 1. Here's what we should get:
Hills of the North, rejoice;
River and mountain spring,
Hark to the advent voice;
Valley and lowland, sing;
Though absent long, your Lord is nigh;
He judgment brings and victory.

Here's what we get instead from the EDITORS:
Hills of the North Rejoice
Echoing songs arise,
Hail with united voice
Him who made earth and skies:
He comes in righteousness and love,
He brings salvation from above.

Now why do that? The point of "river and mountain spring" was that it was supposed to be something typical of the northern lands (as the rest of the verses had something typical of the other corners of the compass). Cut that out and the whole point of the hymn is lost. Well, guess what? The editors have cut all those out. So why, I ask you, are we singing about hills of the north and so on? Why?

And here's another puzzle. Why have they cut out the reference to the advent voice? And why have they cut out the reference to the "absent long" and to the judgement? Don't they understand that advent is about the Lord coming in judgement? Why do we substitute righteousness, love and salvation for judgement and victory? Is it that the editors, doubtless themselves inhabitants of these northern hills, don't much fancy having the Lord come in judgement? No, I should think they don't...

Now take a look at verse 2. Here's what it should say:

Isles of the southern seas,
Deep in your coral caves
Pent be each warring breeze,
Lulled be your restless waves:
He comes to reign with boundless sway,
And makes your wastes His great highway.
Here's the Editors' rather sad pastiche in place of verse 2:

Isles of the Southern seas,
Sing to the listening earth,
Carry on every breeze
Hope of a world's new birth:
In Christ shall all be made anew,
His word is sure, his promise true.
Gone are the coral caves. But what does it mean "sing to the listening earth"? What? And what has happened to the idea that Christ at his coming in judgement will still the waves and stop the winds? Wasn't that rather a picturesque and imaginative motif? And notice the loss of that biblical image of making the waste places plain and the highway for the coming of the Lord.

Well, I could go through verse by verse. Let's just observe that Oakley's authentic verses about the East ("on your dark hills, long cold and grey...") and the West ("ye that have waited long, unvisited unblest") get their delicate beauty partly from the neat way in which they sum up something of the history of Christianity and its transmission to lands that had a prior history before the arrival of Christianity. They get their beauty from the combination of that senstivity to the history of these lands, combined with a sense that the Second Coming will be to all, and that all will be gathered into the City of God without prejudice concerning their origin or how late they came to Christianity. All of that is, of course lost, in the new version, and no doubt those features have been deliberately lost, probably because the editors couldn't understand the meaning and thought it expressed a kind of racism.

Yet it wasn't Oakley who was racist. It's the NEH editors. Just take a look at the last verse.

Here's verse 5 in the NEH version:

Shout, as you journey on,
Songs be in every mouth,
Lo, from the North they come,
From East and West and South.
In Jesus all shall find their rest,
In him the sons of earth be blest.

Aside from the sexist language "sons of earth" which was not there in Oakley's original, and the fact that they can't do punctuation, you'll see that in this verse the words are spoken by a third party observer. As we sing this hymn we do not identify with the people coming from the four corners of the earth: rather we stand apart and comment that "they" are coming from funny far away places. And we order them to shout. But we, we are somehow out of it. Superior? People from the ancient lands that got there first? Or what?

Not so in Oakley's. No, for Oakley we belong to a great fellowship of members from all corners of the globe and we are all summoned together into God's kingdom, despite the fact that we were (all of us) so late receiving the gospel. In Oakley's version it is "we" who journey home, not "they", and the you in "shout while ye journey home" is us addressing each other; it is thus "we" who have songs in our mouth, not "you" or "they". We are all arriving together; we are drawn from all corners into Christ's undivided kingdom. "Lo from the North we come, from East and West and South". This is precisely not racist: we are all in it together and we all become free from having been bondsman:

Shout, while ye journey home;
Songs be in every mouth;
Lo, from the North we come,
From East, and West, and South.
City of God, the bond are free,
We come to live and reign in thee!

I have to say that I can't really imagine why this bizarre surgery has been carried out on an innocent hymn, which was very much a favourite with many ordinary sound and upright Christians. But this much is clear: the finished product is not only entirely lacking in the poetic imagery of its superior model, and in any theological significance or content, but has also introduced a quite offensive selection of racist and sexist thinking, that was entirely lacking from its predecessor's rather elegant egalitarianism.

And I should say that although Little St Mary's is a church that generally uses the NEH, we have now resorted to supplying a printed sheet with the real words for "Hills of the North Rejoice", on the relevant Sunday in Advent. There are limits to the rubbish we are prepared to sing. Some day we'll get rid of it all, but this one is so bad we've scrapped it already.

For the real thing, you need only go here:


Anonymous said...

Oh dear, I'm a year late with this comment! I was googling to try and find a copy of the version of Hills of the North that we sang yesterday, so that I could show some friends how terribly it compares to the proper version, and here you are, saying exactly what I wanted to!

Bizarrely, my Vicar hadn't noticed that the words were different ...

Anyway, thank you for being so likeminded, and have a wonderful Christmas.

Anonymous said...

Don't worry Sky. I've only just found Catherine's blog so am more than two years late! However I must register my total agreement with her remarks about hymns. Traditional Roman Catholics like myself have to suffer things like, 'Mary was a Bakerwoman'. Here in France where I now live, one can be offended to the point of tears by such things as the Pater noster at Mass sung in French to the tune of 'Old Macdonald had a farm'. Yes, really! It isn't even the whole prayer but is just 'Notre Pere qui est au cieux, bonjour notre Pere!' -repeated ad nauseam. (sorry no accents on my keyboard.) Most Masses are unrecognisable as such and surely the above example is an abuse against even the 'Novus Ordo'.

Thank God for radio 3 Evensongs and the Sunday evening programme.Peculiarly the French equivalent, France Musique,is crazy about English choral music both in Latin and English and we frequently hear recordings of our English cathedrals, the Oxford and Cambridge colleges and groups like The Tallis Scholars, The Sixteen et al.

By the way Catherine, do you know Dame Catherine Wybourne formerly of Stanbrook Abbey and now Prioress of Holy Trinity Monastery, East Hendred, Oxfordshire?
More on another occasion.

Anonymous said...

Well said, Catherine! I can tolerate the bowlderisation of many hymns by "modernised" words, but I feel like weeping every time I am expected to sing this "updated" travesty of one of my most cherished Advent hymns. How long before someone tinkers with my other favourite, "Oh come Oh Come Emmanuel" too- or, don't tell me, they have?

Political Correctness is anything but. Oakley's original may well have been written when the sun never set on the empire and the predominant colour of the map was British pink, but there's not a hint of patronising colonialism in this hymn. Instead, as you say, there is poetic imagery about the four points of the compass which is what makes Oakley's original such a joy to sing.
I've discovered your site after Googling for the words of Hills of the North to sing along with it -or so I thought- on this morning's Daily Service on Radio 4 (BBC, for listeners in the utmost west, the southern seas or waking up to read this in the Lands of the East!).
The service was broadcast from Canterbury in the south, rather than its usual home in "the North" (well, Granadaland Didsbury, Manchester anyway!), and was presented by the Bishop of Stepney along with two other bishops attending the Lambeth Conference (including an American- sounding lady bishop from New Zealand). It seemed like it was going to be a lovely service, starting with joyous African rhythms from Nairobi, progressing through biblical reflections, a grand English choral anthem, prayer from a bishop from the Mid-West, USA and then, I thought, a perfectly apt finish as the last hymn was announced but then...
you've got it: after singing the unchanged first line of "Hills of the North Rejoice", what my ears were subjected to were the hideous pastiches that you so well dispel here, Catherine. Fortunately, I decided I would not be moved. I don't think there is an online version of the NEH anyway - perhaps a small mercy- but I endorse the recommendation of the ever-excellent Cyberhymnal. I sang the version I've known since childhood, and let the BBC singers (or whoever it was) carry on regardless. Perhaps the BBC producer's choice of this version of the hymn says it all really- I hope it wasn't the decision of the Bishop of Stepney.

As to 'Lands of the East Awake', Oakley's hymn was written long in advance of brutal military regimes or communism, but are there still any more poignant yet hopeful lines to sing for the sake of Burma, Tibet,... ? The list will go on, sadly.
Perhaps Mr Oakley had too prophetic, disturbing a voice for the editors of NEH to cope with. He knew how to represent in memorable, lovely lines the Christian "crisis" of evangelism- good news- rather better than the efforts of NEH editors trying to impose an anodyne advent.
Keep up the good work, Catherine, and I hope to visit your blogspot again soon.

Anonymous said...

I and my choir in another St. Mary's in South London are entirely with you. We use Hymns Old and New which has the same breathtakingly awful adaptation. This Advent I will take your advice and print out the words separately. What a great blog!

Catherine Rowett said...

I fear Hymns Old and New is even more inclined to make terrible amendments than the NEH. Poor you! How did you come to have that dreadful hymnal?

Anonymous said...

Lumbered with it I'm afraid on account of History and Expenditure. Can you suggest something better???

By the way i wanted to let you know my name but apparently my URL contains illegal characters! Sorry

Catherine Rowett said...

Well, I suppose you could just put your name at the bottom of your comment?

Anonymous said...

Terribly sorry, that was rude of me, but I was too lazy to "choose an identity"

Catherine Rowett said...

All I meant was, you don't need to choose an identity. Just write your name at the bottom of the post!

William Hare said...

Hooray for St Edmundsbury Cathedral, for doing the correct version in their broadcast this Wednesday!

Virginia said...

I noticed this too, also that they didn't attempt the altered rhythm sometimes suggested for lines 3-4 in some verses. (E.g. to prevent 'From' in the final verse - with whichever words - from falling on a strong beat.) I imagine Little Cornard was written specifically for this hymn and wonder whether the variant rhythm goes back to its composer, Martin Shaw.


Anonymous said...

Catherine, thank you for your informative site. Remembering singing the hymn from the NEH in Christ Church St Laurence(Railway Square, Sydney, and rather high church), and wishing to introduce it to Holy Trinity, Dubbo (out on the plains in mid-Western New South Wales), I was surprised to discover the original version. It all makes much more sense. Mind you, the NEH is a giant leap above what they have here. They graduated from the EH to the Australian Hymn Book (not too bad for a first local hymnal), but impatient of waiting for the second edition (Together in Song), bought Mission Praise. This has to be one of the worst editing jobs I've come across. Not an ounce of liturgical comprehension; Advent is lumped in with Christmas, and so on. Many of the words are very suspect, it's very sexist and most of the settings are too high for the congregation to sing. Many of the hymns have to be printed out from other sources, much to the surprise of the congregations, who are now starting to understand that hymns should tell you about something or express some desire, not just say that "Jesus is Beaut, Mate". By the way, I thought you might be interested in the names of a couple of the other places my wife (assistant priest) minsters to out here: Coboco, Emmagool. The first place is a corrugated iron community hall near a creek in the middle of somewhere (altar and stage up one end, dance floor down the other), while the second is a genuine church building next to what was a school and is now a field studies centre, and they are the only buildings. A few of the little outback churches only have a pub next to them, sometimes a couple of houses if they are lucky.
Thanks, Donald Hawes.

Josie said...

I'd never heard the original version - my school used the New English Hymnal. I love the new version, it's one of my favourite hymns. I don't think it's any worse than the old one. Especially the last verse - whoever gets "racist supremacy" out of that verse has serious issues. Just because it's different doesn't make it bad. Anyway, I just thought I'd say how much I like the new version, and of course anyone who knew the other one first would think it a travesty - but seriously, open mindedness is a great thing. Think of it as a different hymn to the same tune and you might realise that it's actually a lovely song.

Val Langmuir - Ms. SF Leather 2013 said...

I couldn't agree more about these new words. I love the proper version of the hymn, which seems to have been butchered to no good end in the new version.


Eleanor Andrews said...

Just come across this very helpful page - I thought I was in a parallel universe when the hymn I knew so well from school sounded all wrong. Now I know why.
Many thanks.

YKW said...

I detect a lot of strong feelings on this page. I personally grew up with the NEH words, and have no problem with them. I'd just like to add one thought: is it any less acceptable to use "sons of earth" in this hymn than in "Hark! the herald angels sing"?

Catherine Rowett said...

I am very sorry for you YKW. This is the terrible danger of people being raised with bad poetry and knowing no better. The answer to your question about "sons of earth" is yes, because if the words were there in the original written long ago, they are part of its history. If they are put there in the 20th century by someone trying to clean up a text and render it "politically correct" for the ideology of the moment, then it is a fail, because adding "manspeak" that wasn't there already is what they should not be doing. I have no problem with manspeak in its historical context. I have a problem with rewriting what were once good hymns to put it in or take it out.

Unknown said...

I agree with you Catherine, I prefer the original words.

Valerie Hoey