May is the month to remember. This May, Singing in the Shower has already remembered our mothers, and today we remember our military. We will look at how both the Biblical Songbook and the American Songbook treat our service men and women as we celebrate our national holiday, called “Memorial Day.”
Memorial Day began as “Decoration Day” during the Civil War in the 1860s. General Lee surrendered to General Grant at Appomattox and President Lincoln was assassinated – all in April 1865. By the time civilians collected themselves to memorialize all the dead of the Civil War it was the following month – May 1865. The idea behind the May “Decoration Day” or Memorial Day has always been to honor the military dead in our society.
In the Biblical Songbook we get the first national commemorative military celebration in 2 Samuel 3 (31-3) – the memorial service for the great Israelite general, Abner. The story is that a rival general, Joab, has murdered Abner, and David is in full mourning:“Then David said to Joab and all the people with [Joab]. ‘Tear your clothes and put on sackcloth and walk in mourning in front of Abner.’” The text continues: “King David himself walked behind the bier (beer). They buried Abner in Hebron, and the king wept aloud at Abner’s tomb. All the people wept also.” The scene is reminiscent of a US president leading a nation in mourning at the tomb of a fallen war hero. The power of Abner’s “memorial day” is illustrated by several facts: David is referred to for the first time in the Bible as “King David.” Abner is buried, not in his home city in the territory of Benjamin, which would have been customary, but in the royal city at the time – Hebron. And, at the memorial service, David turns on his lyrical genius with a carefully-crafted, publicly-recited poem with the closing refrain: “Do you not realize that a prince and a great man has fallen in Israel this day?” This is a sentence that has been used in English-speaking military funerals for centuries, since the King James Bible published it in the English language in 1611. The Church has appropriately been hesitant through the ages in hymning nationalism in her worship.
We Christians are to love our country, but love our Savior and our heavenly home more. The example of the apostles in Acts 5 is a cautionary warning for us not to be too nationalistic. Having said this, the hymn “God of our Fathers” is used by some in the military as an unofficial hymn of the United States Armed Forces with lyrics such as: “In this free land, by thee our lot is cast; be thou our ruler, guardian, guide and stay.” and “Be thy strong arm, our ever-sure defense.”
Here is the President’s own United States Marine Band, magisterially playing “God of Our Fathers”:
(“God of Our Fathers” performed by the US Marine Band) https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wRIhEdZc3i0
Turning to the American Songbook, it is hard to find serious songs that celebrate and honor our fallen warriors. Mourning our killed GIs tends not to be the focus of the Songbook. But once in a while, Tin Pan Alley songwriters have produced popular patriotic songs that have stood the test of time. And one that fits well with Memorial Day is the rousing “This is My Country,” by Don Raye and Al Jacobs written in peacetime 1940. The song didn’t become popular until Fred Waring and His Pennsylvanians recorded it in l942, exactly one month to the day after the bombing of Pearl Harbor.
(“This is My Country” performed by Fred Waring and His Pennsylvanians) https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KYzRl1PX3b8
It was Raye who wrote the lyrics which speak of pledging allegiance to a nation that has stood boldly for liberty and freedom. Raye is known both for his novelty songs such as “Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy” and beautiful ballads such as “I’ll Remember April.” Jacobs was a studio pianist and singer. Many young men marched off to war with this Fred Waring 1942 recording ringing in their ears. And many of them would never return.
Memorial Day reminds us to be thankful for all those who have fallen in war —those who gave what President Abraham Lincoln called “the last full measure of devotion” to their country, and to the principle of liberty and justice for all. The United States is a nation which hates warfare, and this somber day of honoring our dead warriors is somewhat leavened by the cheerful fact that we also consider it the beginning of summer. But, as you gather with friends and family in carefree laughter and lightheartedness this May, take time to remember the uniformed “fallen princes” who will not be you with in celebration.
This is Bob Case for “Singing in the Shower: The American Songbook and the Church”