A few years ago our church put together a collection of “favourite hymns”. I think the idea was that you would pick a hymn and then write up a little story as to why that hymn was important to you. I clearly remember being asked to contribute, but either my story didn’t make the cut, or I just never got around to submitting anything. It’s probably the latter, and I’m not saying that because I think I had a super interesting story, but come on. I sure I would have come up with something. Something passable.
Something like this:
I think I got all my early music influences from my Dad. He sang in choirs, and collected records (almost exclusively classical, choir, and jazz). We had a huge “hi-fi” in our living room. It was a museum piece. A huge cabinet the size of a sideboard, but instead of being filled with china, it was filled with records and a turn table. My Dad would often put a record on during supper, and I would go over to the “hi fi” after I was done eating and put my ear put against the speakers. The speakers were the entire front side of this behemoth piece of outdated stereo equipment, and if the music was loud enough, or if you got close enough to the side of it, you could feel the vibrations of the music come through the side wall. I have many great, comforting memories of me discovering music this way, and when I think back to my earliest memories of listening to music, I associate that sensation with not only the sound of music, but the literal feel of music through the fabric of the speakers.
I’m sure it was on my Dad’s hi-fi, with me lying prone, that I first heard and felt Ralph Vaughan Williams.
My Dad had strong opinions on music. For example, if you could get a choral recording of something recorded by Robert Shaw, then you got the Robert Shaw version or GTFO. He loved Mozart especially, and his record collection reflected this. And if he found a Robert Shaw recording of a Mozart opera? Oh man. Watch out. I suppose I went a little funny that way too, but my composer/conductor of choice was Leonard Bernstein a generation later. A favourite podcast’s creed is “People like what they like”, and I think if my Dad were still alive, he would agree with that sentiment. My Dad had some Leonard Bernstein recordings too, mostly his musicals like On the Town and West Side Story, but we never got to have a proper discussion/debate on our varied musical tastes. (Okay, “varied” might be a bit too generous a term here if we are discussing the strengths and weaknesses of Robert Shaw and Leonard Bernstein, but STILL. I would have loved to have had that conversation).
In addition to Mozart, Dave Brubeck, and anything touched by Robert Shaw, my Dad loved the Irish composer, Ralph Vaughan Williams. It was first time I heard the name “Ralph” pronounced the Southern English way. “Raif”. One of my Dad’s favourite hymns was “I feel the winds of God today”, which features a tune by RVW. The tune even has a name. Kingsfold. I like that some tunes are given names, like old houses in Britain. Sometimes when I am bored at church I’ll flip through the hymn and look at the names of the hymn tunes, and sometimes the authors. You can really find some treasures.
(I can now see why my entry into the church’s “favourite hymns” book was cut, if indeed it was ever submitted: I’m quickly approaching the 600 word mark and only now am I getting to the subject at hand. But you can’t rush these things).
Those that know this hymn already don’t need a refresher, but here are the words anyway:
“I feel the winds of God today; today my sail I lift,
Though heavy, oft with drenching spray, and torn with many a rift;
If hope but light the water’s crest, and Christ my bark will use,
I’ll seek the seas at His behest, and brave another cruise.
It is the wind of God that dries my vain regretful tears,
Until with braver thoughts shall rise the purer, brighter years;
If cast on shores of selfish ease or pleasure I should be;
Lord, let me feel Thy freshening breeze, and I’ll put back to sea.
If ever I forget Thy love and how that love was shown,
Lift high the blood red flag above; it bears Thy name alone.
Great pilot of my onward way, Thou wilt not let me drift;
I feel the winds of God today, today my sail I lift.”
So obviously I responded well to the nautical theme. I have always been stuck by the romance of the sea, and all of its trappings. Lighthouses, fog, mist, sea captains, cruel partings and overdue reunions, long distance lovers, foreign lands and peoples, chowder, superstition, the mystery and adventure of it all. I don’t know why. Maybe being from the Prairies, it seemed so exotic to me.
I like the idea of a pilgrim waiting for favourable winds to cast off into the unknown. I can also relate to the idea that my sail is heavy, wet and “torn with many a rift”. We aren’t perfect. We never will be. It doesn’t matter. In the second verse, that same wind that calls us to action is also the wind that comforts us in our times of despair, and refreshes us and restores us to our former glory. In a hymn already chock full of romantic imagery, it goes meta and forces the writer to look back on the “purer, brighter years” as inspiration. The third verse doubles down on God’s unconditional and unwavering love, despite those times when “I forget thy love and how that love was shown.” I think of the Gunslinger’s mantra from Stephen King’s Dark Tower series when someone loses their way of them “forgetting the face of their father”. Something about that line always stuck with me, even before forgetting my father’s face became an actual reality for me. Then you get some not-so-veiled references to the Good Friday sacrifice with that Blood Red Flag showing up as a reminder. This line always makes me think of a young Bono, taking flags from the crowd in the early days and incorporating them into the concerts, no doubt during “Sunday Bloody Sunday”.
So, in summary. It’s a pretty damn great hymn, and one that we don’t get to sing very often. We sang it a couple of weeks ago, and all of the memories of singing it as a kid in church next to my Mom looking up at my Dad in the choir loft came back to me. Music has a way of doing that. Sometimes you’ll sing this same tune but with different words.
I heard the voice of Jesus say,
“Come unto me and rest;
lay down, O weary one, lay down
your head upon my breast.”
I came to Jesus as I was,
so weary, worn, and sad;
I found him in a resting place,
and he has made me glad.
I heard the voice of Jesus say,
“Behold, I freely give
the living water, thirsty one,
stoop down and drink and live.”
I came to Jesus, and I drank
of that life-giving stream;
my thirst was quenched, my soul revived,
and now I live in him.
I heard the voice of Jesus say,
“I am this dark world’s light;
look unto me; your morn shall rise,
and all your day be bright.”
I looked to Jesus, and I found
in him my star, my sun;
and in that light of life I’ll walk
till traveling days are done.
I don’t know. There is nothing objectively WRONG with these words, I guess. They just seem to be a little “samey”, and they don’t feature seas and winds and adventure and chowder. (I realize that this second set of words were actually written first, by the improbably named Horatius Bonar. And before you ask, no he doesn’t.)
That’s all I really have to say about “I feel the winds of God today,” today. But I have a couple more things to say about RVW, if you have the time to stick around for a bit.
Like I said before, RVW was one of my Dad’s favourites, and in Grade 11 our band was set to perform his “English Folk Songs Suite” at our annual concert. My Dad was always interested in what our band was playing and what our choir was singing, and he was particularly excited to know about the RVW piece. We previewed it at the band festival that Spring, and I was glad my Dad was able to skip out of work and come down and hear it. I couldn’t have known at that time that was going to be the last time he heard me perform anything. Depression got a hold of him soon after that, and he was hospitalized for a couple of months for it. He died the morning before our final concert in June, and never did hear the final, polished version. I remember the just the night before he died, reminding him of the concert and wondering if he would be able to get a day pass to come hear it. He got the day pass, but I think he had already made up his mind. I decided to go to the concert that next day, in spite of everything. I didn’t want to let the choir down. (The band wouldn’t have missed me, really, but the choir? That was another thing). So I performed the “English Folk Song Suite” in memory of my Dad, not for my Dad, as originally planned. And I somehow held it all together that whole evening. I think there was a part of me that wanted to show my classmates and my teachers that I was tough, that this little thing that happened yesterday wasn’t going to throw me off too badly. I could fake it for a few days anyway, and that was all that mattered to me then.
I’m not sure if you know RVW’s “English Folk Song Suite”, but it holds a special place in my heart now, obviously. Especially the slower second movement. Even listening to it today takes me right back to that high school gym that Monday evening, June 3, 1991. The three movements taken together form some kind of a cohesive whole, and sound cyclical when you listen to it on repeat. There was a time the following summer when our high school band briefly became a marching band on a tour of Europe, and we did exactly that: we played it cyclically for the better part of an hour as we wound our way through the narrow streets of some small town in Germany. It lends itself to repeated listens quite well. It was one of the first pieces to make it onto my iPod almost 10 years ago and it has never left.
About the same time that the “English Folk Song Suite” made it onto my iPod for the first time, I was invited by someone in my church choir to audition for another choir in the city that was looking for additional members for a special upcoming concert with our symphony orchestra. I wasn’t one for auditioning. (I haven’t changed much in that department). And yet I put together a piece and found the courage and went down, laid myself bare, and sung my heart out. I got in! I’ve been singing with that choir every since, and it is one of the highlights of my year to practice and then perform with them.
But I didn’t know that ten years ago. The real reason I tried out was that the piece the choir was performing was “A Sea Symphony” by, you guessed it: Ralph Vaughan Williams. I took it as a good omen that I was feeling the winds of God that day, and I had no choice but to lift my heavy, drenched and torn sail in response. I have too many vain and regretful tears, brought on by the oddest of triggers. Just like the “English Folk Song Suite” life goes in cycles and here at the end of something begins again something new. I wonder what it will be? Only time will tell.