Let Me Make the Songs of a Nation, and I Care Not Who Makes Its Laws

by Dec 31, 2013Music13 comments

Andrew Fletcher famously said, “Let me make the songs of a nation, and I care not who makes its laws.”

I’ve heard this and similar arguments many times, and I just read another example in a helpful book, Gordon Wenham’s The Psalter Reclaimed:

The words hymn writers and liturgists put on our lips in worship affect us profoundly: they teach us what to think and feel, the more effectively as they are put to music so we can hum them to ourselves whenever we are inclined. (105)

I want to believe Wenham is right. But experience teaches that—for me personally, at least—Wenham and Fletcher couldn’t be more wrong. There is never a moment during a worship service in which my mind is less likely to be engaged than when we are singing (well, okay, maybe the Ladies Missionary Prayer Group announcement). There is never a portion of the service in which it is more difficult for me to really focus on what I’m saying than when I’m saying that something with rhythm and pitch.

I hate to admit this. It isn’t right. But I know it’s true because of the many times over the years when, while singing a familiar song, even one I’ve memorized, a phrase’s actual meaning strikes me for the very first time. It just happened again recently with a Christmas carol and, true to form, I can’t remember which one it was…

The exception for me is probably when I sing as part of a small group like a men’s quartet, something I’ve done countless times over 20 years. During practice it’s very hard to think about the message of the song. Nearly impossible, even if I’ve just encouraged the other singers to do it. But when we’re actually singing to the congregation, I often get a sense that I’m saying something important and I’m somehow enabled to stop and pay attention to what it is.

I think my inattention is especially profound when I’m singing a congregational hymn I’ve sung 921 times before, beginning in 1982. I can’t and don’t blame old hymns. I do love so many of them (“And Can It Be!” is my favorite), all the more when their message squeaks through to my brain. But perhaps this is an argument for the importance of using at least some contemporary hymnody: maybe we (or just I?) need the shock of the unfamiliar to make us “sing with the understanding also” (1 Cor 14:15).

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  1. arttecmissions

    Haha you dont understand music then…

    • John H

      I thought this theme was attributed to one of the Ancient Greek philosophers… ???? back when music (ballads) were the news of the day …

  2. Lydia

    I think you’re applying this quote too strictly to worship songs limited to Sunday mornings. I tend to daydream during hymn singing as much as the next person, but they still pop into my mind throughout the week- and I count that as a far greater song to come to mind than Lady Gaga’s Judas.
    Our culture is hugely influenced by the music we listen and sing along to and the images we see on our screens. It is the arts which have driven the most significant culture within all societies.

    • Mark Ward

      This is a good and thoughtful comment.

      I certainly don’t deny that music has a huge influence on us.

      I’ll have to think about this.

  3. nickharsh

    Hey Mark. First, I want to say that I really appreciated reading your post. I found it while searching for a paper I am writing and could stop myself from reading because I was curious. I wanted to interact with your post because you got me thinking and I like that a lot. You said, “During practice it’s very hard to think about the message of the song.” Part of me wonders if you aren’t actually explaining exactly what Andrew Fletcher was talking about. The very fact that you can sing the words without thinking about them deeply almost seems to be part of the double edged sword of music. I know there are songs I sing all the time without completely thinking about the words yet I would guess that they are forming me in ways I can’t even see.

    Anyway, all that to say thanks for the post. I read it paused and have something to think about now. I would totally love to hear your thoughts if you are able otherwise I just want to say that I found your ideas thought provoking. Thanks!

  4. Paul

    Hi Mark; I appreciate your thoughts but like Nick I believe that you are actually proving the quote correct. Have you ever had the experience of being simply hearing a phrase, feeling an emotion or seeing something and the words and melody of a song you have heard or sung pops into your mind. Words and melody which you may have thought long forgotten or were not even aware you had ever learnt. I believe that unlike much of our other conscious thought, songs and music have a way of bypassing out active consciousness but still affect us and change us.It has the ability to affect out emotions, make us happy or sad, worshipful or dance in ecstatic joy. Anything which does that shapes us.

  5. Philip Stel

    I agree with Fletcher. Deuteronomy 31:19 says, “Now write down for yourselves this song and teach it to the Israelites and have them sing it, so that it may be a witness for me against them.” God wanted his message to get into them in a way they could not forget. Deuteronomy 32 is the song Moses taught them. Christian Reformed (Gereformeerd) children in the Netherlands in the Christian schools of the earlier 20th century memorized a psalm a week. I often heard my mother singing those psalms as she was dealing with the loneliness and struggles of being an immigrant in a new and foreign land where she did not know the language, and life was hard for her/us. (Canada). Those psalms gave her strength as they conveyed the truths of God and gave her words of lament and praise and faithfulness. God gave his people a songbook of 150 songs. Over my 40+ years as a pastor, virtually every parishioner has told me that the psalms were their favorite scriptures. Both my wife and I can sing countless hymns from memory. And as the years go by, the words become more and more meaningful. I grew up with psalmody so the versified psalms also speak for and to me. So often people have told me that a song they sang in church on Sunday went through their minds all through the week. I think songs/music connects the mind and heart. I also believe that the meaning of songs needs to be taught to people, similar to Bible verses and passages. We need to continue to grow and deepen in understanding throughout our life. Strikingly Dutch Christian Reformed people were suspect of hymns after their secessions from the Dutch Reformed Church. That was because pastors were writing hymns as powerful tools to teach liberal, heterodox theology. These folks were well aware of the power of song in teaching. I found it interesting that Robert Schuller often rewrote hymns to reflect his gospel of positive thinking. Etc.

  6. Joseph Blough

    Mark, I believe you miss the point of the quote. It’s speaking of how to most effectively impact people. In “Let me write the songs of a nation”, the word ‘song’  is essentially in quotes, meaning any form of the arts.  The best way to influence people is through entertainment, specifically music. This is why the Devil has been so proactive in entertainment. Laws, rules, education, even parenting, only go so far. If you really want to get to the heart of a person, appeal to them through music. Get them to enjoy your melody and you can tell them anything you want. The Beatles did more to change world civilization than any dictator or congress could ever dream. People live their lives with a soundtrack of their favorite songs. Heaven itself is abounding in music, one of God’s greatest inventions. Indeed, as one hymn puts it: ‘Hark how the heavenly anthem drowns all music but its own” (Van Halen has nothing on the choirs of heaven). 

    The power of music is profound.  My countenance, no matter how low, can immediately change when I sing my favorite lyric:

    “Could we with ink the oceans fill, and were the skies of parchment made. Were every stalk on earth a quill, and every man a scribe by trade. To write the love of God would drain the oceans dry. Nor could the scroll contain the whole though stretched from sky to sky.”  

    This beautiful poem is made all the more powerful when I can sing the lyrics. It makes the words a part of me. The Psalms are full of this.  Poets used to be very popular in our culture, and now are essentially non existent.  Where did they go? They segued into lyricists, writing beautiful songs like Stardust, or terrible songs like “I Kissed a Girl”.   Entertainers enjoy more popularity and influence today than the most powerful leaders on earth. John Lennon had it right when he said that the Beatles meant more to kids than Jesus.  The Beatles took the youth of the world in six years from “I want to hold your hand” to “Why don’t we do it in the road”.  

    Laws and government are not how people dynamically change people. Entertainment is. Its one of the most powerful ways people can influence and change people.  It goes without saying that the best, and only reasonable way to change people is through a relationship with God.   It is no coincidence that He uses music as well. 

    • jim

      Joe, you are by far the smartest and most informed person on this forum. It is just astounding how many people don’t understand what Fletcher was getting at. Most people would not knowingly take in poison through their mouths, that would kill the body. Most people have no problem taking in poison through their eyes and ears, which kills the mind and warps the soul. Lennon’s song “Imagine” is one of the best examples of this that I have ever seen. Just go back and read it line by line, and it is completely obvious what he hoped to accomplish with it (besides making a lot of money). It is #3 all-time.

  7. Joseph Blough

    PS – I should add: John Lennon’s quote was a sad indictment of our society, but it was certainly true.

  8. Daniel

    Have you ever considered that the OT Prophets were the poet/musicians of their day? Most of their prophecies are broken out into poetic form because they follow conventions of Hebrew poetry. If you consider Elisha saying “bring me a harpist” and when the music starts he delivers the word of the Lord, it wouldn’t be a big stretch to think the prophetic poetry may have been sung.

  9. Tim Roth

    In Schieffer’s Book, How Should We Then Live, gives the best explanation how art and music have been used down through history to change the mind and heart in ways that just the spoken or written word could not. I would highly recommend reading it.

  10. Catherine Sundwall

    Thanks, everyone, for your comments. A most interesting topic. Whatever our denomination, we must encourage more singing. All the talk we hear in our churches has not kept our youth engaged.