Case in Point


This blog site will feature essays, columns and musings that deal with the intersection of Christianity and journalism and the American Songbook.

Psalm 98, “Joy to the World” and “The Christmas Song”


Francis Schaeffer suggests in his booklet, Art and the Bible, that when we look at a work of art, for instance a song, the work should be judged according to 4 criteria:

1) technical excellence

2) validity, that is, is the artist honest to himself and to his worldview

3) the worldview expressed in the art, and

4) integration of the content and the style of the art.

 I’m spending these few Advent weeks looking at how both sacred songs and some popular secular songs can be sung and enjoyed by those of us who observe this special time of the year as an occasion to celebrate the sacred Coming of our Lord Jesus Christ.

 From the sacred Biblical Songbook I point to Psalm 98 (4) and the great Isaac Watts’ versification of that Psalm in his musical poem “Joy to the World.” The poem, written in 1719 and set to music by composer Lowell Mason from a George Frideric Handel tune, is a fine example of Biblical Songbook music that passes Schaeffer’s four-fold test. Watts’ lyrical poem, “Joy to the World,” is really referring to the Lord’s second coming, but it began to be used by the Church to refer to His first coming.

 The Watts’ version of Psalm 98 exhorts first us, to let our songs “employ,” and then “nature’s songs” to sing, of the “wonders of Christ’s love.” Jesus came to make “His blessings flow,” so “every heart should prepare Him room.” It is poetry at its most sublime. For more than 50 years “Joy to the World” has been the most popular Christmas hymn of the Church, and here is John Rutter and his magnificent Cambridge Singers doing it justice:

 (“Joy to the World” performed by the Cambridge Singers)

 downloadTurning to the American Songbook, Mel Torme, the composer, author and sophisticated jazz singer, once wrote, “Popular music is a little like Chinese food – you’re hungry an hour later, no matter how good it tastes at the time. Still, a great deal of what is written in pop [music] is delectable and satisfying.”  “Delectable” and “satisfying” isn’t all bad, and might describe Torme’s popular contribution to the Christmas secular canon – “The Christmas Song.”

 Torme tells the song’s story. World War 2 was over, soldiers were returning home and there was no more longing to be with family; It was happening. It was a time for celebration and joy. But one could still long for cool days in the uncomfortably hot Southern California sun. On one hot July afternoon in l945 Torme goes to the home of a friend of his, Bob Wells, a lyricist living in the Los Angeles area. Letting himself in, Torme finds a note pad on the piano with a four line poem scribbled on it.

 Asked about it, Wells responded, “It was so hot today that I thought I’d write something to cool myself off. All I could think of was Christmas and cold weather.” 45 minutes later, after some Torme tune-smithing, they had a song – “The Christmas Song.”

 A year later the great Nat King Cole recorded the song and it was the biggest hit of his storied career. According to the American Society of Composers and Publishers the song has remained the second most popular Christmas song, behind, what else, “White Christmas.” Here is that son of a Baptist preacher, Nat Cole, singing “The Christmas Song.”

 (“The Christmas Song” performed by Nat King Cole)

 The Wells/Torme song speaks of “Yuletide carols being sung by a choir” and little could be more glorious than the yuletide carol, “Joy to the World,” being sung by the choir of The Cambridge Singers that we heard a moment or two ago. The Torme secular carol also sings of sleepless nights by children, anticipation of opening presents, families around a roaring fire roasting chestnuts, turkey dinners and “making the season bright” for everyone, including us Christians.

 So, this Advent season, sing along with Isaac Watts but don’t forget Bob Wells and Mel Torme.

 And so I’m offering these “simple phrases”:  A “very Merry Christmas to you,” and may your Advent “season be bright” because of the coming of Jesus.

 This is Bob Case for “Singing in the Shower: The American Songbook and the Church.”



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