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Roots and Wings: Musical Makeovers for Classic Hymns and Hymn Texts

For dozens of generations, hymns have been the mainstay of worship music. Christians have praised with them, prayed with them . . . and played with them. Good pastoral musicians have always played around with hymn arrangements, seeking creative expression and the best liturgical effect. And of course, texts and tunes are made to mix and match. This playfulness sometimes yields wonderful results (try the text “When I Survey” to the tune o waly waly), and sometimes painfully bad results (ever heard a youth group sing “Amazing Grace” to the tune of the theme from Gilligan’s Island?).

The best results happen when theologically deep and emotionally rich texts are wedded to music that is aesthetically fitting and culturally resonant, that connects at every level. This is exactly the goal—and the achievement—of those who put together the materials available at the website Indelible Grace (www.igracemusic.com).

“Boom-chick” Not the Answer

Though this project has its roots in the 1970s, it took off in the mid-90s when Kevin Twit, a guitarist, songwriter, and former record producer, became the campus minister for the Reformed University Fellowship at Belmont University in Nashville, Tennessee.

He had been in the habit for years of using treasures like John Newton’s letters in his ministry, so he knew the power of well-crafted words, and knew how hymns can serve as mini-meditations on the gospel. Many traditional hymn texts, despite their depth and power, weren’t (and aren’t) sung much anymore (“Dear Refuge of My Weary Soul” by Anne Steele, for example). Twit’s pastor instincts told him to get those words into his students’ hearts somehow. He knew they could get past the sometimes archaic language, but the old tunes were a tougher hurdle. Students’ hearts would be more easily opened if the texts were matched with settings sung and played in their own musical language—and a drummer playing “boom-chick, boom-chick” behind “Holy, Holy, Holy” wasn’t going to do it. Since the Church’s long tradition of “playing around” with hymn texts and alternate tunes (often folk tunes) sanctioned what he had in mind, he and others—including students—set about the task of finding, commissioning, or writing such pieces.

The project was—and is—an amazing success. Twit writes, when students read [Anne Steele’s] words, now set to music that connects to them, they are blown away. They are able to have the incredible experience of communing spiritually with a saint who lived and suffered 300 years ago in a little town in the English countryside. All of a sudden, the kingdom of God grows bigger for them. They see that the Body of Christ is huge!

Our goal is not change for change’s sake, but to rekindle a love of hymns and to invite many who would never associate rich passion with hymns to actually read the words! We believe that we are impoverished if we cut off our ties with the saints of the past, and that we fail to be faithful to God in our own moment of history if we don’t attempt to praise Him in forms that are authentic to who we are.

After a time, Reformed University Fellowship had amassed a large collection of these musically made-over hymns. Others borrowed them and testified to their power in other contexts. So the record producer in Twit decided to find a way to share these gifts more broadly with the Church. He decided to make a recording, called together some of his very talented musician friends (Derek Webb from Caedmon’s Call, Sandra McCracken, and Matthew Smith, to name a few), and went to work. Or play.

CDs Just the Beginning

The resulting CD, Indelible Grace, is filled with top-flight hymn texts (“And Can It Be,” “O Love That Will Not Let Me Go,” “Come Ye Sinners”) set to professionally performed and produced—but eminently accessible—acoustic folk-rock tunes. The CD was a commercial hit, spawning a follow-up CD (Pilgrim Days) with even more hymns.

If that were all this group had offered, it would have been a handsome gift to the Church. But that’s only the beginning. A few clicks around their website open doors to a host of other resources.

The home page includes links to production and purchasing information about both CDs, of course. Other links supply histories of and theological reflections on the hymns, stories behind some of the hymn text authors (including a rather detailed biography of Charles Wesley), a raft of Twit’s sermons, and a discussion board where worship leaders can chat about using hymns in contemporary worship.

Free Music

The ministry has expanded even further with the recent awarding of a Lilly Worship Renewal Grant. That grant has enabled the Reformed University Fellowship team to initiate a larger concert tour, to convene a conference on the use of classic hymn texts in modern worship, and—here’s the best part—to make all the music available to churches for free.

Though there are only 31 songs on the two CDs combined, the site has available (or should, by the time this is printed) more than ten times that many made-over hymns. Half of them are new tunes, half are new arrangements of old tunes. There are simple demo recordings of all the songs in .mp3 and RealAudio formats. Most astonishing, the music is available in lead sheet form (melody, lyrics, and guitar chords) for free download in both concert and capo keys.