What a weekend I had! My church had the privilege of hosting a music workshop led by Andy Watts of The Carnival Band. We had an intense day of singing and playing on Saturday, and the music we learned formed the basis of family worship on Sunday morning. Then, in the afternoon, he had a go at some Christmas music. Huge fun! With a bit of luck I’ll be able to organize a sound clip or two to post up here.
My special privilege was providing accommodation for Andy during his visit, and I’m pleased to report that he is a thoroughly splendid fellow and did me the courtesy of not complaining about my choice of tunes on the CD machine. My girls were away, so I had a completely free choice. I hope I kept us in the folkie mood of the weekend with Flook, Ry Cooder, Bellowhead and an assortment of Welsh minstrels.
The Carnival Band have for years been breathing new life in to old hymn tunes, and in this tercentenary year of Charles Wesley’s birth they have a special concert programme devoted to his hymnody. Andy’s thesis is that one of the problems with our hymns is that they have been cluttered up with Victoriana. His solution has been to go back to the original tune books and look at the arrangements found there, usually very different from the ones we’re used to. Hymns in the eighteenth century were usually accompanied by a small band — a bass, a fiddle, maybe a clarinet, whatever was there — and a choir of male voices. What he’s done is taken those arrangements and recast them. It isn’t an attempt to “go back”, but rather to get to the essence of the music an move it on. The result is high energy stuff, often very moving. You can hear some samples at the Carnival Band’s website. One of my particular favourites is their version of ‘Come O thou traveller unknown’, but you’ll have to buy their album Paradise Found to hear that. Take it from me: it’ll make the hairs stand up on the back of your neck.
Thanks to Andy and his motley gang of singers and musicians, Sunday worship went with a real swing. (Special thanks have to go to Jub, also of the Carnival Band, who made the journey down on Sunday morning with his double bass to help us with those foundational low notes.) There really is life in these old hymns and it would be nothing short of criminal to allow them to fall into disuse, especially for the fatuous ‘reason’ that they’re boring. None of the kids leaving church on Sunday morning looked like they’d been bored, and it was Wesley all the way.
What we urgently need to do is recapture the energy that is lying dormant in these hymns. Of course, it is fine music but there is much more to it than that. Wesley’s hymns were written to convey the power of the gospel, to draw people in with their combination of popular tunes and poetic words. The hymns are not an end in themselves, but a tool for the proclamation of the gospel.
Andy gave us some very helpful pointers to doing just that. I’m looking forward to finding out where it will take us.