american folk hymns and their mark on our culture

Defining what counts as authentic American culture is a bizarre endeavor, above all because our nation is so diverse (a melting pot, etc.) that selecting one cultural phenomenon as representing us is bound to leave some kind of gaping hole. (Of course, this complaint could be leveled against any kind of canonized national culture in any country.) American folk hymns, like Thanksgiving and major league baseball, for some reason, scream "American". (It goes without saying, of course, that the negative effects of exclusion have always been extremely clear in our country's history and are certainly clear today.)

So, conscious of the necessary superficiality of what follows, here's a whole-hearted celebration of American folk hymns.

When my high school choir teacher was absent, he would have us watch a musical DVD in class. Sometimes it was A Thanksgiving of American Folk Hymns: a Brigham Young University celebration of that genre. (The awkward construction of national identity can, I think, be easily seen in a Mormon institution in Utah celebrating music that, as far as I know, generally came from Protestant Christians of the eastern U.S. and gathering it all together with a Thanksgiving Day aesthetic.) I have no family link whatsoever to the communities that originally produced this music; no one in my family was in this country before the 20th century. Listening to this kind of music and feeling like a strong patriot upon doing so is analogous to my grandmother (whose parents were born abroad) being a huge Elvis fan.

But, oh, what great music! "My Shepherd Will Supply My Need", which my church choir at Fordham happened to sing right after my freshman year began; "Hark, I Hear the Harps Eternal", which the Fordham Women's Choir sang at my sophomore year's spring concert; "The Promised Land", which the Fordham University Choir sang almost a year ago; "How Can I Keep From Singing?", which was sung at the Fordham Baccalaureate Mass a year ago; "Simple Gifts", immortalized in Aaron Copland's Appalachian Spring; "Wondrous Love", always sung at the Fordham Good Friday liturgy; "The Battle Hymn of the Republic", beloved remnant of the Civil War; and "Come Thou Fount of Every Blessing", invariably the closing song at the Fordham Baccalaureate. (And how can I forget to mention "How Firm a Foundation" and "Jerusalem, My Happy Home", without which I find All Saints' Day incomplete? And, of course, it's impossible to forget "Amazing Grace.")

One could easily (and not totally falsely) say that the glorification of American folk hymns is an outdated, ridiculous piece of garbage nationalism, part and parcel of our country needing to solve its identity crisis soon. (And I do notice that I've said "American" instead of "estadounidense".)

But I do think that Beauty is valuable on its own, and I don't think it's for nothing that, if there's one thing I've learned singing in choirs, it's that the union of disparate voices in great music is real and indispensable healing for all touched by it.

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